Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Christmas Cake Requiem

For a lot of Australians, one of the best parts of the holiday season is the Christmas cake - a fruitcake of gargantuan proportions and grandiose preparation -
             I have written previously about the Christmas Cake  - the deep cultural resonance of butter by the brick, of sugar by the tonne, of eggs by the dozen, of apricot jam, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and above all of dried and glace fruit -
             It is the fruit that makes the cake.   In 2010 I wrote -
"In August or September you gather your fruit. A pound or two of raisins, the same of sultanas, another of currants, candied citrus peel, glace cherries, crystallized ginger and pineapple, glace apricots and peaches and pears and figs and oranges and kiwi-fruit and quangdongs and cantaloupe (if you can get it) all chopped into little pieces no larger than a raisin. When you have a lasagna pan overflowing with sweetly aromatic fruit, you begin to add the alcohol. Slowly, pouring and turning and stirring and resting, over the course of a week you pour in bottle of brandy - and then another. As the fruit swells, you move the overflow into another great bowl and tend to both. The house smell thick and alcoholic - 
            "Like a distillery" Mr Tabubil sniffs ardently, "but in a good way."

I baked a Christmas Cake last year, for our first Christmas in Chile, but Chile doesn't have much of a glace fruit tradition.  Chile's confectionery heritage runs mostly to German kuchen and dulce de leche, or manjar, as it is know locally - a thick, sweet, sticky mess of boiled evaporated milk and sugar cooked into in everything from wafer crackers (alfajores) to croissants (media luna) to layer cakes (torta mil hojas)
             I began looking for fruit in October, just after we arrived in Chile.  Raisins and sultanas came easily, and diligent searching resulted in a single packet of glace apricots from a little Armenian import shop in the comuna (suburb) of Patronato, but as for the rest of it -
             Home-country traditions mean even more when you're an expatriate far from home.  I had the bit between my teeth now, and I wasn't stopping for anything. The Australian shops I'd worked with the previous year wouldn't ship internationally, European outfits would only ship wholesale, and North American offerings were slim. Calling in favors from anyone I knew to be traveling up and down from Canada and the USA,  I shipped myself tubs of glace cherries and candied orange peel and pineapple -
             Christmas had passed by, but that was no matter. This Cake was going to happen.  By mid-January I had collected all the fruits I could, and by mid February they 'd been boozed up till they sweated out an alcoholic haze and the flies that blundered through the window into our flat fell insensible in the kitchen doorway and never rose again, but it was a scant and simple cake that I loaded into our oven -
             And because I was still learning its tricks and temprament, that dearly bought cake came out over-baked: a cinnamon, nutmeg and alcohol soaked charcoal briquette.

I didn't make a cake, this year.  All in all, it didn't really seem worth the fuss.  You can make glace fruit yourself if you're so inclined, but it's a process that takes days of boiling and ends in a perpetually sticky kitchen that sort of leaks into your other living spaces, and I have quite enough of that with Mr Tabubil when he decides he needs home-made marshmallows.  A mixing bowl full of unset marshmallow tends to work its way out of the kitchen into every single room in the house - like silly string, only rather more tenacious, and I've washed the stuff out of my hair often enough this past year that I'm not taking on any more sticky -
           This post, then, is requiem of sorts - the story of the last time we didn't have a fruitcake for Christmas.  That was the year that I was thirteen, the year when the icing on the Christmas cake went wrong. The year we were living in California, and couldn’t find the traditional white royal icing in the local shops.  The year of our really big Christmas party, when all of our expatriate Australian big-talk and honor was on the line.
             You can make white royal icing yourself, if you've sufficient time and masochism. The day before the party, Mum and I set to work. It was a tremendous job; tenting the kitchen in old sheets, we kneaded sugar and egg whites and glycerin until the room was coated in a glistening sheen and we were just unspeakable.
             Nibbling hugely the whole time, we stirred and shaped and molded, and four hours later, we had one fine looking cake  - complete with a little silver mirror on top for a lake and a couple of miniature pine trees around it for ambiance and a border of little silver-painted sugar balls spelling out wishes for a Merry Christmas. Also one kitchen  that looked like it had passed through an icing-sugar supernova, and one empty bottle of glycerin whose label looked, on belated reflection, subtly… wrong.
             We'd found it in the back of the pantry- a battered bottle with the label peeling off - it had looked mostly right and we used it without thinking.  Now, in the bright glow of the aftermath, the label appeared to have a couple of significant spelling errors, and in Big Bold Black Letters, right underneath, a jolly motto reading "If ingested, contact your Nearest Poison Control Center immediately."
             It was all over the cake.  It was all over the kitchen.  It was all over the insides of us.  Burping nervously, we grabbed for the telephone directory and dialed.
             The lady on the telephone at the Poison Control Center was professionally reassuring.  We'd be fine, but did we have more than one lavatory in the house?  She was very glad to hear it, because in about four hours, we'd both be becoming rather intimate with the fittings  for the next day or so.
             She didn't even giggle. Hanging up the phone, Mum sighed and looked at me, and while she showered and rushed out to the shops, I stripped the cake of its gorgeous iced topping and re-laid the floor with fresh sheets.  And we did all of it, all over again. We never did find out where the bottle had come from.
            We were living in California that year, and although we'd stripped the cake bare and even gone so far at to shave off the upper half-inch of cake, just in case, we thought we'd better bow to the local culture and insist that all our guests sign limited liability waivers before they tried it.
             Not one single guest took a single bite of our Christmas cake that year.  Every one of them declined the privilege. 

We found it hurtful.

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