A season for love (and cake)

Christmas cake

My Christmas cake, 1963. Photo by Tony Eppstein

What I loved about living in England as a young woman in the 1960s was the traditions around the holiday season. On foggy street corners in London, vendors with portable braziers sold roasted chestnuts, hot in the hand, but so good. Butchers’ shop windows would fill with huge hams, neighbors’ kitchens be redolent with the aroma of figgy puddings steaming on stove tops. I would pull down the English recipe book my mother-in-law had given me and assemble ingredients for my Christmas cake: an assortment of dried and candied fruit, spices, juice, eggs, butter, brown sugar, treacle, flour, and the all-important dash of rum.recipe


Cookbook cover, considerably more pristine than my beat-up copy. Image from http://magazine.direct2florist.com

Making a proper English fruitcake is a multi-day affair. First, the careful preparation of the tin and timing of the baking so that it doesn’t go dry. My Constance Spry Cookery Book devotes several pages to these matters. Then the making of the cake itself. Several days later, in preparation for icing, the cake is brushed with a warm apricot glaze. My cookbook declares:

The object of this protective coating is to avoid any crumb getting into the icing and also to prevent the cake absorbing moisture from the icing and so rendering it dull.

Next comes the layer of almond paste or marzipan, rolled out like pastry and smoothed on with the palm of the hand. A day or three later comes the smooth base coat of royal icing, made by mixing egg whites and lemon juice with the sugar. When this layer is perfectly stiff and hard the decoration is piped on.

When we moved to California, I continued to make Christmas cake for a few years, until I realized that fruitcake in America is the butt of seasonal jokes and that my lovingly prepared cake sat in the pantry scarcely touched. I am grateful that until his death a few years ago, my late brother-in-law Derek Heckler, who lived not far away, continued to bake and share a splendid traditional cake.

As earth and sun roll toward another pausing time, let us remember dear friends and family members now gone, and reach out in love to those still with us. However you celebrate the season, may it be filled with the traditions you hold dear.

7 Responses to “A season for love (and cake)”

  • Kate:

    Lovely post.
    Your cake is gorgeous!

  • Miriam Frances:

    I have made a large much-appreciated Christmas cake in two tins with one for my daughter this year; without the almond paste and icing my mother used to have too, Maureen. One of my memories of the Second World War was my mother making extra Christmas cake to pack in special tins and send to my relatives in England during and after the war, when butter and other necessities were rationed. When my father was reunited with his mother after thirty years, and she came to New Zealand, he as a Christian minister allowed my medium grandmother to have a tea-reading tent at our annual church fair! Happy Christmas all Miriam

  • Alice Richards:

    As a child we had roasted chestnuts too. Daddy probably ate them because his father, from England, also had them. Alan will not try them when I served them early in our marriage. And I loved making fruitcake for many years as my daughters and husband laughed at me for doing so.
    Your beautifully iced, delicious fruit cake is something I remember you served us, years ago.

  • Maureen, this is very inspiring! Thank you for the recipe. While fruitcake has become rather commercialized in the states–hence the butt of jokes especially the commercial brands filled with preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup–I believe that a well-crafted cake is ideal backpacking food and echoes days of old when medieval and renaissance pilgrims needed a high-energy boost on their long journeys. A perfect treat for long dark nights huddled round the fire.

  • Patty Joslyn:

    My grandmother’s plum pudding sauce was the highlight for all us kids sitting at the little table. The plum pudding itself was kept on the big peoples table, we liked it this way!

  • jenny woolf:

    Your fruitcake looks beautiful! Why is fruitcake the butt of seasonal jokes in the US? We had relatives who used to send us a splendid cake each year, I don’t THINK they were doing it as a joke! 🙂 (But I agree that it is a bit of an acquired taste.)

  • sue goodman:

    I had to look up black treacle to find it is molasses. My English mother never called It that. Some people do like, “Christmas cake” of “fruit cake” we call it. My husband and my French son in law, prize it. But, I didn’t make any this year because we still have some from last year, so it does not go fast..
    How about plum pudding and yummy sauce –hard to make and more and more expensive to buy.

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