Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How To Kill A Christmas Cake

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, November 29, 2014 by Sara Jewell Mattinson.

Freshly baked. Now comes months of sherry sprinkling.

My friend Shelagh is quite confident she can make anyone love Christmas cake, especially someone who has never tasted one before.
“This is the one that people who say they don’t like fruitcake haven’t had,” she says of her Nanny’s fruitcake. 
During my visit to Ontario last month, Shelagh handed me a Christmas gift bag containing a chunk of her just-made Christmas cake and a small jam jar full of sherry but she forgot to tell me how to combine the two.
Given her tone on the phone when I made a follow-up call the other day, taking care of Nanny’s cake is a great responsibility.
“You should be adding the sherry every couple of weeks and since it’s now the end of the November that means two seconds after you hang up the phone,” she snipped at me. 
I was smart enough not to say out loud, ‘It’s just a Christmas cake’ because for Shelagh, this is a family tradition she alone carries on. 
“It probably came from Nanny’s mother but I always think of it as Nanny’s,” she said. “Mine isn’t as good as Mum’s and Mum’s wasn’t as good as Nanny’s. It probably has something to do with not letting it age long enough. Thanksgiving was always the rule. Plus I keep mine in the fridge but Mum kept hers in a cold cellar.”
“It was only two weeks after Thanksgiving that you made yours,” said the person who paid no attention to the bag of cake and sherry sitting on a shelf in her house for a month. “It should be fine.”
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND, you Christmas cake cretin. Maybe you don’t even deserve to have this cake, even one that small.”
Okay, Shelagh didn’t really say that but the long sigh oozing through the phone suggested I wasn’t taking this Christmas cake seriously. 
“I can do this,” I reassured her. “I can. Just tell me what to with the sherry.”  
“You don’t want pools of sherry on top. For a cake that size, no more than a tablespoon. Just sprinkle it over,” she explained. “Since you haven’t done it yet, do it more frequently with a lighter hand. Too much sherry and it becomes a big sludgy mess. It would turn into Christmas pudding.”
She said ‘Christmas pudding’ like it was some vastly inferior dessert. The lip curl was audible.
Since I’ve never eaten Christmas cake but am now fully educated in the care and maintenance of this one, what can I expect when I unwrap it for the final time on Christmas Eve?
“It will be a dark, moist, flavourful cake,” Shelagh said. “Ideally, it gets to the point where it’s so dark, you can’t see the individual fruit. This is why people think they don’t like Christmas cake, when they think of the individual ingredients.”
Nanny’s recipe uses candied fruit, crystallized ginger, maraschino cherries, dates and raisins.
“But no nuts,” Shelagh said. “People feel very strongly about nuts or no nuts and about light or dark. Then there is the whole icing debacle. I am no nuts and no icing. The cake needs to stand alone.”
This intensity is a side of my friend I’ve never seen before. She doesn’t even get this worked up about books and she’s a librarian.
Her final instructions to me were very clear: “You have to cut it the right way. You have to cut the slices into fingers. That’s the way Nanny did it. And you have to savour it,” Shelagh added. “I’m good about not starting to eat it too soon but once I’ve started, I’ll take it out and hack pieces off.”
Every fall, Shelagh sends cakes to her mother, her father, and her sister in Vancouver. They receive theirs in tins and are likely quite knowledgeable in the proper application of sherry. I get the impression my bag with a small chunk of cake was a trial run and I’ve failed to prove myself worthy enough. 
“I’m really careful about who I give it out to,” Shelagh said. “Not to someone who lets it languish in a bag.”
As soon as I hung up the phone, I unwrapped the small chunk of Nanny’s Christmas cake entrusted to me and picked up a tablespoon. But before attempting my first light sprinkle of sherry, I took a heavy swig to calm my nerves.

The friendship will survive!

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