My Mother's Christmas Cake

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

This morning I slid a large glass bowl from the refrigerator. It was brimming with dried fruit - golden Chinese sultanas, currants, raisins, cranberries and candied peel - shiny with cherry brandy. I lifted off the wrap, stuck my nose into the bowl and inhaled deeply. The aroma reached my toes.

I carefully laid the bowl on the kitchen bench where the winter sun had made it warm. I then slid a large spoon down the side of the glass bowl and lifted the gleaming fruit up and over, berries and fruit tumbling and rolling, drunken and fat and glistening sweetly like a bowl of precious, aromatic jewels. This motion affects my heart.

I then put on Christmas music, tied on an apron, lit some incence and began talking to my mother. As I do each Christmas, I tell her how much I am missing her - still as much as ever, even after 18 years. Then I tell her how surprised I am that I will spend the rest of my life without her, as though I've only just been told this news. Then I tell her about the kids and my husband and about our lives and I talk to her of my ups and downs and I ask her advice, as though she were sitting opposite me, tilting a warm cup of tea to her lips. I close my eyes and I can see her smiling.

I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea. Then I cried and cried. And then I stopped and wiped my eyes because mum's Christmas cake needs joy mixed into it, not sadness. The fruit giggled at me in the bowl. It was drunk and happy. I eyed off the cherry brandy for a moment, then poured some tea.

Next, it was the flour, powdery and light, sifted with allspice, cinnamon and baking soda. I love to bang the side of the sifter with my hand and watch the flour poof in white clouds against the morning sun, before settling into dust. In another bowl, the butter had been resting, silky and melty at the edges from the winter sun on the window pane. I plonked a cup of tightly packed, sandy brown sugar into the yellow nest and whipped till creamy, then added eggs, one, two, three, four. Mix mix blend, all the time thinking of the end result, the tang on my tongue, the sweetness of the fruit, the roundness of the spice, the fragrance of the brandy - I can still taste my mother's Christmas cake, even decades later.

I can remember sneaking into the pantry when she wasn't looking, quietly prising open the big square tin, breathing in the blend of fruity aromas and metal from the cake tin, feeling the tang in my nostrils, the release of saliva under my tongue. Then, peeking around the door to make sure no one was coming, I'd snaffle a small slice with the tiny knife she left in there. A small slice so she wouldn't know I'd been in there, this wee little cake-eating mouse. A small slice here and there, here and there until it completely evaporated. That cake never lasted long.

It was a joy to me, that cake. It typified my mum and who she was. Always sunny, always warm, always rich and fragrant and smelling of face creams. Feeling that fruitcake taste spread across my tongue, even just remembering that taste, evokes such strong memories of my mother, coupled with the joy and wonder pervading the air around Christmas. The memories induced are so strong and so precious, it is like she is standing right next to me.

And so I have adopted this practise, of Christmas fruitcake making - a practise that only a real baker will understand, for there is something about baking that is primal, that takes us to our baser selves, to our heart.

My Christmas cakes are my mother's heart.

So, the cake is sitting in the centre of the oven right now, rising and baking into a luscious, edible memento of my love for my mum. When I take it from the oven, I will cool it, wrap it, rest it and keep it until Christmas Eve, when we will slice it well before Santa tracks down Beijing on his radar. We'll also have it with coffee for breakfast under the Christmas tree. The kids will snaffle it too; both of them adore it, as though some small part of that cake is infused with my mother's spirit. They delight in this cake and it brings me such joy to see them savour it and honour it and treasure it the way I do, especially as my mother died well before they were born.

But life has an entrancing way of blending elements together so that even if we miss each other on this earthly plane, we carry within us the memories, the genes, the instinct of those who have gone before us. Memory comes from scent comes from breezes comes from pressure changes comes from action and thoughts and sights and beliefs and Christmas cakes and human beings and baubles on Christmas trees. They amalgamate. They become one, and one in the same.

This is how a daughter can place so much importance in a Christmas cake.

It may be a small thing to others. It may be a simple thing to do - but for me, baking this cake is an unparalleled way to hold mum close to all of us. To honour her memory and in this way, keep her alive forever.

I'm off to stand in the kitchen, right near the warmth of the oven, and sniff the fragrant air.

Happy Christmas, Mum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this post!
I love this cake ~ makes me want to attempt a Christmas cake on my own!
I love you and thank you for sharing such a lovely story about your momma!
You momma must have been an amazing woman. I kno wthis, because you are incredible!
Sending hugs to you for your lovely spirit. T

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