Thanksgiving is just around the corner here in the USA – the annual celebration of family and gratitude, cleverly disguised as an exercise in gluttony and football. Every year, families gather together to share an enormous turkey dinner, watch the Dallas Cowboys lose to whoever, and argue bitterly about why the government is to blame for the burnt apple pie. (Thanks Obama!)
As a native Brit, I am relatively new to Thanksgiving and all it’s delectable comestibles. The main “eating” holiday in Britain is Christmas; so in the spirit of the Season of Overeating, I thought that I would share a few tasty tidbits about holiday food found back home.
Christmas cooking started early in our house. My mom, schooled by years of tradition, knew that in order to get the moistest, crumbly-yet-dense fruit cake, one had to bake it in October and “let it sit”.
“Why?” you ask. Well, when a fruit cake is infused with a sizable amount of sherry, one must let the juices be absorbed by the raisins, sultanas, cherries and orange peel for maximum potency.
(I think that I should point out that a lot of festive foods in the UK tend to contain a least moderate amounts of liquor – well, it is Christmas!)
And so, cake made, it was wrapped in aluminum foil, placed in an old biscuit (cookie) tin, and put in the cupboard to ferment.
At the beginning of December, like some alcoholic fruit bomb, the cake was carefully prepared for step two of the Christmas Cake Ritual – the attachment of the marzipan! Sometimes called almond paste (yuk!), marzipan is a malleable confection made of sugar or honey and almond meal; it is also the only part of the cake that my mom didn’t make from scratch. She would buy a block of the stuff, roll it flat and attach it to the sides and top with apricot jam. I know it was apricot jam, as I was often called upon to help hold the marzipan in place while she wrapped it around the cake. Once adorned, the cake went back into its foil robe for another week or so before the final touch – the Royal Icing.
This last step was a thing of majesty. Mom made her own icing (frosting) with powdered sugar, egg whites and vanilla extract. Slowly she would combine the ingredients by hand (we did not have/could not afford any kind of electric mixer) and out of the unlikely powdery mix, a thick, stiff frosting would be smeared over the marzipan, lifted to form little peaks of “snow”. The cake would then go into the fridge to let the icing harden before being decorated with little plastic Santas, holly and a “Merry Christmas” sign.
It is worth mentioning that the cake would remain edible right up to Easter, which is just as well as, not only was it delicious, it was very filling! I have never eaten a cake that could compare with my mom’s Christmas Cake – a marvel of tradition, patience and alcohol.
No British Christmas dinner would be complete without Christmas Pudding. When my brother and I were little, mom would make her own Christmas Pudding – though I only remember her doing so a couple of times, probably because of the time it took to cook. In later years, she (and almost everyone else) bought their puddings from the grocery store. As far as ingredients, Christmas Pudding and Cake are not that different – both are dense, liquor-filled fruit cakes; but while the Cake is baked, the Pudding contains suet and is steamed.
Christmas Pudding has a long history. Dating back to the 16th century, it was originally called “plum pudding”, made with dried fruit, eggs, breadcrumbs and, naturally, beer and/or spirits. There are superstitions attached too – some say every member of the family should stir the pudding mix from East to West, in honor of the Three Wise Men. A lucky sixpence is often put into the batter prior to steaming; whomever got the slice with the sixpence could make a wish.
The Sunday before Advent is sometimes referred to as “Stir Up Sunday” – traditionally, the day to start making your Pudding. Like Christmas Cake, the liberal contribution of alcohol (in this case brandy) to the mix makes it easy to make and “let sit”.
The thing about mince pies, especially the ones my mom used to make, is that you cannot have just one. Like both Christmas Cake and Christmas Pudding, the “mincemeat” in the mini pies consists of dried fruit and alcohol (brandy/sherry). Mom’s mince pies were generally made much closer to Christmas Day than the other treats, partly because they didn’t need to “sit” as long, but mainly due to the fact that my dad, brother and I would eat them all as soon as they cooled down.
Originally, mince pies were filled with meat, but over the years the dried fruit mixture became common. In the days leading up to Christmas, mince pies and sherry would be served to guests who came calling (Christmas Cake was not usually offered until Christmas Day or after). Nowadays, mince pies are a staple of the Christmas season and served at pretty much any festive gathering, as well as at home sitting watching the telly.
Christmas was always a magical time when I was a child. Even when times were difficult and we couldn’t afford many gifts, the promise of a mince pie (or two!), and a slice of Christmas Cake was always kept. Given the overwhelming commercialization of the holidays, I find that traditional food and treats can help maintain at least a tenuous hold onto a simpler time, whether they be turkey and pumpkin pies, or Christmas Cake and mince pies.
Let’s all Eat, Drink and be Thankful!
P.S. I borrowed the “Cake or Death” title from an hysterical stand up set by the brilliant comedian and actor, Eddie Izzard. Click the banner to view it – unlike that second helping of pumpkin pie, you won’t regret it…