I can’t remember when I started to bake with Mum. It feels like we’ve always baked Christmas goodies together. Whenever the tradition began, it is now a firm one, a ritual we share, one we get excited about together. This year, as we agreed when we’d get together to bake (almost always the October bank holiday weekend) it struck me that I won’t have a daughter or son to share this ritual with. The realisation made me stop, wonder if there was much point, hit me hard in my heart. I may never get to hand down these recipes, this celebration of family and eating together. Maybe it’s enough to simply show up each year, maybe it will evolve in it’s own way.
While I won’t have children of my own to share these rituals with, I choose to keep them alive and celebrate the connection with my Mum and my family of origin.
One thing that has never changed is the recipe we use. Mum’s Stork Christmas recipe booklet, her Christmas baking bible, is almost as special as her Delia Smith books. It vanished a couple of years ago, greasy and tattered and somehow, I found one in my recipe folder. It’s not as tattered and I haven’t a clue where it came from, but the recipes are the same.
Plum Pudding. Stork Christmas Cake. Those are our stalwarts.
Mum taught me how to bake. I’m not a natural baker, I still don’t quite know when a mix is ‘light & fluffy’ or when butter & sugar are creamed to perfection. Mum knows though.
When we first started baking Christmas goodies together, my job was to sort the fruit, pick out any stems and separate the clumps. Washing up was my gig too. Over the years, we’ve danced into new roles. Now Mum sorts the fruit, lines the baking tins and supervises. She’s in charge, she’s the wisdom holder. I douse the fruit in brandy to soak overnight. I cream the eggs & sugar to perfection. I add one egg at a time, with a little bit of flour in between to stop the mix curdling. I fold in the remaining flour and fruit. We are not believers in the ‘All in One Method.’ We’re old school.
I pull the cake out to test it’s readiness…all under Mum’s watchful eye.
Lining the tins is a really important job and tedious. Like preparing an old door for painting; it’s the sanding and cleaning that takes time, painting is the easy bit. Mum carefully measures the tins, cuts out greasproof paper and the magic trick, a layer of newspaper on the outside, between tin and greaseproof. That’s the secret to preventing a cake that takes 5 hours to bake, from burning. Essential that it’s the Irish Times though, only the paper of record will do.
When my Dad was alive and we were baking for Christmas, he always wanted a slice of cake as soon as it had cooled. He found it utterly infuriating to have a cake sitting there, not to be touched for 2 months. So, it became tradition that we baked a second cake. A Dundee cake, topped with almonds. Mostly to keep Dad from robbing chunks of Christmas cake, justified by the fact that the oven would be on for 5 hours and sure, you may as well make use of all that heat.
There have been years when I lived abroad and we didn’t get to bake together. One Christmas when I lived in Sweden, Mum posted a chunk of Christmas cake to me, once she had baked it. I couldn’t be without it. For a time, my sister ran an incredible café on site at my family’s garden centre. Mum got her cake and pudding there instead of baking herself. It just made more sense, when they tasted so good.
We found new traditions. I fell in love with mince pies and the delicate pastry you need for them. They became my party food, for festive gatherings, my home made hamper goodies. We’ve come full circle again, choosing to bake together, regardless of where we might be for Christmas Day. We have reclaimed our ritual. Thanks to my Kenwood stand mixer, these days we mostly drink coffee and catch up. All of the thoughts, worries and questions that have become lodged come tumbling out. As we sift and stir and while away the hours of baking, we talk and listen and connect.
Maybe I’ll get to share these rituals with my nieces and nephews. I’d love to watch them morph, to serve the next generation. I’d love to share the tradition and connect with those who will follow me, whether they’re my blood family or not. You see, it’s not really about the cake or plum pudding at all…