Preparations were well advanced. It was only October but the candied peel, plump sultanas, currants and raisins had been bought and stored in the pantry for weeks. The baking of the Christmas cake required military planning. The overnight soaking of the fruit in brandy and spices, left a sensuous and giddy aroma in the house. The biggest mixing bowl was unearthed from the back of the cupboard – there was a certain anxiety amid the excitement. The mixture was impossibly heavy, the stoutest spoon was employed to heave it over and over, uneven dispersal of fruit was a constant threat. Finally, we trouped through to stir the mixture and make a wish. Mother’s evident irritation at the slowness of our dreams was apt to spoil the magic.
The oven would be given over to the baking of the cake for at least five hours. An untimely distraction at the last moment could result in the top blackening and the cake ruined. In a bad year, if squabbling children caused a burnt crust it blighted the holiday.
‘You can still smell it.’ Mother would say vengefully. ‘Even with all that brandy and the top sliced off. Let’s hope it doesn’t taste.’
We hoped and hoped.
Later, stored and wrapped in layers of grease-proof paper and foil it was taken out at weekly intervals, a darning needle inserted and fed with brandy. Finally, it was ready to decorate. The jam smeared on with a palette knife, marzipan rolled out and pressed over the top. Then with the tension rising, the Royal icing; get the consistency wrong and it would slide, this sugary avalanche, resting like white magma lapping the plate, and causing the level of panic usually associated with a serious natural disaster. If however, it behaved and could be manipulated into frosty spikes, then Father Christmas and assembled company could parade across the surface triumphant. The cake would then sit glorious on the sideboard, with strict instructions not to touch, until the guests arrived in the form of long forgotten aunts and lanky cousins. Cut into squares, we would eat the icing and marzipan discretely tucking the fruitcake, which we all hated, under a festive napkin.