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Who’d have thought my neighbourhood liquor store would be out of mickeys of cheap brandy in October? All that remained was the orange-flavoured variety. But anyone who performs the annual ritual baking of Christmas cakes knows you don’t mess with tradition. Regular cheap brandy in a plastic bottle is the only thing that will do.
To my surprise the clerk, the owner I think, asked if I needed it for Christmas cake.
“Well, yes,” I answered, a bit taken aback by his insight and a little embarrassed by my admission to such an old-fashioned practice. I thought I was one of the last dinosaurs who made Christmas cake. Apparently it’s not so.
This surprised me because I can think of just one friend, whose elderly mother is of the English persuasion (as in Jolly Olde England), who does it. Furthermore, she ships her cakes from Ottawa to Vancouver, where my friend and his wife are required to sing the praises of the beloved cake even though they actually hate it. They would rather bin – or, to be more politically correct, put it in the compost – than eat it. But that is not an option as granny visits at Christmas.
Since I still had plenty of time to make my cake and have it ripen in time, I could certainly wait for the next shipment of cheap brandy.
The next stop on my quest, right next door, was the bulk food store where I buy the other ingredients. No fluorescent fruit for me. My cake is stuffed with the sun-dried goodness of cherries and blueberries, organic raisins, currents and almonds.
The only notable exception to the healthy stuff is candied orange peel. I am not sure, and don’t care, where candied orange peel falls on the Canada Food Guide pyramid or a chemistry table: I’ve got to have it for my cake.
As I was pinballing my way about the store gathering ingredients, the clerk asked: “Are you making Christmas cake? We’ve got all the stuff in.”
Perhaps it was time for me to take my annual ritual out of the closet. According to the folks at the bulk food store they couldn’t keep the ingredients on the shelves.
Still, let’s face it: Christmas cake in all its dazzling green-and-red-cherry glory is the butt of endless jokes. Offering homemade Christmas cake is right up there with threatening to put coal in your children’s Christmas stockings and giving coffee mugs to their teachers.
My husband humours me and supports my annual baking ritual, but he won’t touch the stuff. I’ve had to develop a thick skin against the rejection of my labour of love.
I think it’s high time to debunk the myth that all Christmas cake is awful. All Christmas cake is not created equal. Being someone who doesn’t believe in false modesty, I’ve been known to celebrate my perceived and very occasional culinary achievements, however humble.
To select dinner guests I have trilled, with perhaps just an edge of desperation, “Try my Christmas cake! It’s organic, no fluorescent cherries, no dyes, and it’s even gluten-free.” I don’t mention the candied orange.
Over the years I’ve had to rein in my enthusiasm. No amount of organic ingredients or overpouring of brandy can shake the mythic disappointment I see if I conclude an otherwise convivial and delicious repast with an offer of Christmas cake.
On occasion I’ve detected mirth as I wait, serrated knife poised, for the usual response: “Oh my gosh, I couldn’t eat another thing! Well, maybe just one little chocolate. And would you please pass the brandy?”
I do have one friend who covets, really covets, my Christmas cake. She doesn’t sing its praises to her family and guests, she tells me, because she wants to eat every last morsel herself. My annual baking ritual starts with an e-mail to this dear friend, with words along the lines of: “I baked my Christmas cake today and it made me think of you,” to which she replies: “Oh, how sweet of you to think of me!”
I’ve just realized she has never mentioned the delectable cake coming her way. I think she likes the cake.
So this fall I began my ritual anew. I was much quicker off the mark this year – I usually wait until Halloween. That’s the deadline to ensure there’s enough time for the brandy to work its magic on the fruit and nuts. I made a note on my timeworn recipe that waiting until Halloween might be prudent in future, if only to ensure that late-summer fruit flies don’t fall, intoxicated, into the brandy-soaked fruit.
Last year, when I had jumped on the dietary craze of gluten-free, my cake was free of wheat – and, sadly, the luscious texture that goes with it.
This year I’ve attempted gluten-free once again with the newfound knowledge that xanthan gum is the secret to achieving the “glue” benefits of gluten. (I will also relegate xanthan gum to the list of ingredients that shall remain nameless.)
As I like to tell those who will listen, mine are not your granny’s Christmas cakes. I’m not even a granny. Perhaps that’s the problem. Upon further reflection, maybe I need a change of messaging if my cakes are ever to be loved. After all, who can, with a clear conscience, refuse granny’s Christmas cake?
Cathy Dixon lives in Victoria.