Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of themMarcel Proust
This morning I watched the rain run down the window as the wind drove sheets of rain across waves of grass and beyond out over a turbulent grey sea. A metaphor for the poignant memories which turn my thoughts to the many Remembrance Sunday services when I stood quietly with my father and granny as a child, a girl and later a woman. Now I am the only one left to remember and stand in silence.
So thinking about my family, I begin to look forward – it is time to make the Christmas cake.
In the first half of the 17th century Christmas was one of the most important religious festivals and holidays. It was a period of indulgence with the consumption of great quantities of brawn, roast beef, plum-pottage, minced pies and Christmas ale accompanied by dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays. Christmas still retained the medieval elements of “misrule” and in the eyes of the Puritans of the Cromwellian Commonwealth it was an excuse for drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess.
Among the stricter English Protestants the objections to the traditional Christmas celebrations were not based solely on questions of morality. The Christmas festival was popular among the Catholic recusant community and, therefore, in Puritan eyes it had all the trappings of popery. (After the Reformation those who refuse to attend Anglican services, whether Catholics, Quakers or other Protestant non-conformists were known as recusants)
In the the 17th century the original plum pottage¹ (a boiled beef with red wine, beer, spices, apples and dried fruit “soup”) had not yet evolved into the Christmas pudding. However, when the Christmas pottage was made flour and eggs were added any left-over mixture to make a cake to be eaten at Easter. There was also cake to celebrate Twelfth Night which contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. By the time Cromwell had finished the mince pies and mummers had been vanquished, but the Christmas cake, something of an amalgam of the Christmas pudding and the Twelfth Night cake, managed to survive. With the re-invention of Christmas by the Victorians, the Christmas cake became an iced and decorated extravaganza.
Now you can choose – a traditional Christmas cake, a panettone, stollen, bûche de Noël or a Dundee cake. Even if you choose a traditional fruit cake, you can adjust the mix to suit your taste – dense and moist or lighter and drier, plain or iced, with or without almonds.
I don’t make a cake every year and it remains unadorned, except perhaps for some glazed nuts. The cake is spicy, moist and rich, and although the composition of the fruit mixture may vary from year to year, the basic recipe changes very little. It is also well fed, so it needs time to mature. I’ve added my recipe for a Cake for Christmas to the Croft Kitchen recipes, so you can compare it with your family recipe.
1Plum-pottage was also probaly the origin of mince pies (minced pies). The style of Christmas pudding we now consider traditional did not arrive until the 19th century.