Something about this time of year lends itself to exclamations – or is that just me?
It is time to make the Christmas cake!!!!
Facebook memories tells me I’m behind the curve, – in 2018 apparently, I’d time to crystalise oranges and lemons to make homemade German Lebkuchen. To be fair they were magnificent Lebkuchen – much nicer than the ones from Lidl that I’m currently eating for breakfast, – don’t judge! It’s got orange in it, it’s virtually the same as drinking juice.
Back to the cake.
I love making Christmas cake. For me, it is the ritual that says the holidays are here. Yes, I know it’s still November when we make it – the last Sunday before Advent – but the scent of the fruit soaking, the cake baking, seems to linger in the air for weeks afterwards, a tantalising foreshadowing of the feasts to come.
My ritual starts months before, adding an ingredient to the shop every couple of weeks, – glace cherries here, dried figs there. There’ve been tighter years when the Christmas cake was simply cheap mixed dried fruit, but this year we will have plump sultanas, dried cherries, prunes and raisins, figs, and nuts. It seems I’ve forgotten to buy currents – the dreariest of dried fruit, and oranges, whose peel and juice are essential to the whole proceedings. I willl have to nip out. First, the annual rummage in the back of all the cupboards to find the brandy, dusty from its long sojourn.
I warn the kids that I’m soaking the fruit. I know they don’t live here anymore but they’ll be needed so fair warning is given, as I’ll not be accepting excuses.
The smell in the kitchen, on a damp Saturday afternoon, as I weigh out all the ingredients, drags me back to a house full of kids. Saturday morning trips to the library, wet walks home along the river and sausage rolls from the bakers for a treat.
Now it’s just hubby and the dog.
It’s meditative, sat on a stool, scissors in hand, snipping up pieces of prune and fig. I listen to the radio, occasionally catching sight of the magpie that has taken to afternoon tea on the bird table. I feel timeless, – at any moment I could be interrupted by shouts of ‘Mum,’ as kids come tumbling down the stairs, arguing, needing a referee, teenagers standing at the fridge, door open for days as they peer in.
Husband sidles up behind me, arms around my waist, a kiss gently grazing my ear.
‘Smells like home,’ he whispers.
The fruit is left to soak overnight.
The next day fat and flour and sugar are mixed. Tins are lined. It’s then that I need the kids.
Phone on loudspeaker, in the olden days it was tucked under my chin, now with more chins, it’s more likely to be a video call, I call the kids in turn.
‘Make a wish,’ I sing down the line, sometimes waking them, sometimes catching them at work.
‘Make a wish,’ I shout at voice mail as I stir the cake mix for each in turn.
They thought me magical as kids, mad as teens, making them wish on cake mix.
‘But it can’t be Christmas without wishes,’ I’d whisper, hugging them in reply.
Stirring alone, now they are all out in the world, their faces gurn on the screen.
For a moment I miss them more than I can bear.
Each copes with my eccentricity with grace, even when they were hungover.
They close their eyes and wish.
The batter, more fruit than cake, is carefully spooned into the tin. The scent of roasting newspaper fills the air, tied around the outside of the tin to stop the edges burning. Only later will the cake-smell triumph.
Always a little worn out by the time the cake is nearly done, impatient for it to hurry up, I hover at the oven door.
The smell as it sits, cooling in the tin, is magical, – full of Christmases past, present and future. A Muppets Christmas Carol kind of smell – sugar and spice and freshly bathed kids snuggled on the sofa.
The scent of longing and nostalgia and love.
I gave the cake an extra stir for you!
Make a wish, dear friends, it’s not Christmas without a little magic!