Wednesday, 19 November 2008

A Bit More Fruit Cake

The last few days have been a flurry of activity -- with an engagement party, a Christmas Fayre, a Ralph Vaughan Williams concert, and a visit to a potential boarding school all being mixed into my usual round of activities. The children are having exams and late play practices, and I seem to be forever driving down dark lanes at night. In addition to the usual round, there is now the "seasonal" round, and I'm already starting to feel swamped. There are "present piles" (ie, unwrapped presents stuffed in plastic bags) everywhere; the calendar is getting increasingly complicated and double-booked; and the thought of my Christmas card picture is starting to nag at me. In short, November feels like it is on the wane . . . and we all know what that means.

The season of excess is upon us.

Are you a last-minute Christmas person, or a plan-ahead Christmas person? Frankly, I'm a bit of both. As I told a friend at my daughter's Christmas Fayre on Saturday, I tend to take a Kamikaze approach to Christmas preparation. I fling myself headlong into certain aspects, but my overall battle-plan is lacking. I have no sense of the whole; I can't see the endgame; I lack strategy.

I have been buying presents for a while now, but I'm proceeding without a list . . . and I'm pretty sure that I'm losing my way. My best friend in Houston seems to have three gifts, while certain family members (not my children, obviously) seem to have none.

I had the vague idea of making lots of Christmas Cakes and chutneys this year -- to keep and to give away -- but instead of carefully figuring out the quantities of the necessary ingredients, I just bought what seemed like "plenty" and has turned out to be "a lot" and probably "too much." In other words, I have a glut of dried fruit. Motivated by the combination of this glut and the fascinating comments I've received on my Black Cake experiment, I decided to try a fruitcake recipe of an entirely different kind. As several blog-friends admitted to nonalcoholic fruitcake as preference, I wanted a fruitcake for "tea" as opposed to a rich and rummy seasonal confection.

My fondness for nostalgia is such that I can get quite sentimental about a past that I didn't even experience or share in any way. My imagination is wonderfully active in that way. Therefore, when I discovered a recipe for Castleton Vicarage Cake -- with the accompanying note that its author wrote the Little Grey Rabbit books -- I was immediately plunged into some pastel, vaguely Beatrix Potterish fantasy in which red squirrels and rabbits come to tea. I was also beguiled by the thought of lots of greedy vicars gobbling up the fruity goodness!

Castleton Vicarage Cake

Preheat oven to 170C/350F. Grease two loaf tins (or one enormous round cake tin) -- and line with parchment paper.

1 pound self-raising flour (or the same of plain flour plus 1 teaspoon of baking soda)
12 ounces of demerara sugar
1 pound mixed fruit (generally raisins and currants, but I put in about 3 oz of apricots)
4 ounces of candied peel
12 ounces of butter
1/2 pint milk (this is an English pint, so you will probably need at least 10 ounces)

Mix all the dried ingredients together in a large bowl. Add butter that has been cut into walnut size lumps and stir these through. Then, pour HOT milk over the whole. Stir thoroughly with a wooden spoon, and then scoop the thick batter into your tins.

Baking time is approximate. I baked two loaf tins of fruitcake, and they took roughly 80 minutes. Obviously, if you make one large cake tin it might take longer. Start checking on it after an hour. The finished fruitcake won't "spring back" or pull away from the sides like a sponge cake, but the top should be golden and firm to the touch when it is done.

Unlike the Black Cake, this fruitcake is remarkably uncomplicated to make. It is also astonishingly delicious! My teenage daughter, who generally turns up her nose at dried fruit, has eaten slice after crumbly slice this afternoon. Her mood, which was rather foul immediately post-school, has noticeably sweetened. Therefore, this fruitcake seems to be a prescription against low blood sugar, early dark evenings, and the general stress of the season.

And one more thing: My youngest daughter is getting Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer for one of her Christmas presents. It is a self-described "golden treasury of classic treats" -- a cookbook/trip-down-memory-lane for children (or adults) who gorged themselves on Enid Blyton stories and other English favorites. (Aren't the food descriptions in children's books always the best?) I've had a little peek, and there are TWO recipes for fruitcake in the book. I don't know if they can beat the Castleton Vicarage Cake, but no doubt I shall be trying them out in January!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Black Cake: First you take a bottle of rum . . .

I've just emptied a bottle of rum and one of sweet wine . . . and no, I haven't taken to drink. Actually, I'm soaking my fruit.

After this fruit macerates in its 40% proof bath for a month or so, I'm going to make my first fruitcake.

a word that conjures up myriad responses.

In America, fruitcakes are mostly mocked.
  • "Nutty as a fruitcake . . ."
  • The Christmas gift that keeps getting re-gifted.
  • A relic that only the older generation -- those same quaint folk who used to get an orange and a couple of nuts in their stockings -- actually like to eat.
Indeed, my paternal grandparents were very fond of fruitcakes; memorably, they even sent me one when I was in college. They liked the pecan-laden version from the famous Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. (I believe that they started out with the Deluxe, but switched to the Apricot Pecan version in later years.) According to their website, Collin Street Bakery ships to "196 foreign lands." I'm not sure exactly how many foreign lands there are these days, but that would seem to cover most of them. Clearly, somebody out there is eating a lot of fruitcake.

In England, fruitcake has always been popular -- so much so that it makes the festive rounds at birthdays, weddings, and especially, during the Christmas season. Unlike the American fruitcake, which features red and green glace cherries rather heavily, the English fruitcake is dark and boozy. Rum, sherry, ale, brandy, whisky: they all get their chance. Perhaps the English fruitcake has never fallen out of favor for precisely this reason. American fruitcakes are still suffering from Prohibition.

I've had a yearning to make my own Christmas cake (ie, fruitcake) for a few years now. Although this seasonal ritual never would have occurred to me in America, it is all part of my English acculturation process. It is not unusual, in my little corner of the countryside, for women to say something like: "I iced my Christmas cake today." This year, I am going to be one of those women! Marks and Spencer will still be selling Christmas cakes, but this year, I won't be buying.

I'm not just making any old fruitcake, though . . . I'm making Black Cake.

I first read about Black Cake in 1991. My friend Martha Smith gave me a copy of Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and said, "I think you will like this." Never mind "like"-- that insipid, lukewarm word -- I loved it. Indeed, I am evangelical on the subject of Laurie Colwin. I spread the Word whenever and wherever I can. If I meet a fellow Laurie fan, I am instantly convinced of this person's inherent likeability and good taste. It is like skipping the first six months of getting-to-know-you and cutting straight to the chase of true friendship. More food reminiscence than cookery guide, Home Cooking is for people who like to read about food. Laurie Colwin writes cookbooks for people who are interested in the role that food that plays in our lives. "Dinner Parties" or "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir" are typical chapter titles.

The final chapter in Home Cooking describes an exotic mixture called Black Cake -- which is, apparently, the Caribbean version of fruitcake. Colwin describes it thusly, in the following oft-quoted lines: "There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. Its closest relatives are plum pudding and black bun, but it leaves both in the dust. Black cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated and intense. It has taste and aftertaste.

Who wouldn't want to try this gorgeous-sounding stuff? It seems entirely appropriate for me to make -- as my first fruitcake -- this Caribbean/American/English hybrid.

Black Cake
(from Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin)

Part I: The Fruit

1 pound raisins
1 pound prunes
1 pound currants
1 pound red glace cherries
3/4 pound mixed peel
1 bottle Passover wine*
1 bottle dark rum (750 ml)

Chop all of the fruit extra, extra fine and put in a large bowl.

My reflections: Unless you have a posse of friends with you, and you are drinking margaritas and chatting as you do this extra fine chopping, I would advise a food processor for this task. Be sure to pulse each fruit carefully, and one at a time, or you will get mush -- particularly with the raisins and the prunes.

Add the wine and rum and stir the mixture together. Marinate at least two weeks, and up to six months. Colwin advises a "crock" for the marinating process; Nigella Lawson suggests a large tupperware; I'm using a large plastic bottle which I use (only theoretically) for lemonade in the summer.

My observations and shopping feedback: First of all, English people who work in grocery stores have no idea what "passover wine" is. One kindly man tried to fob me off with ale, as he claimed that this is what the locals are using for their fruit cake. I was pretty sure that passover wine* is a sweet, cheap red (and subsequent Internet research has revealed this to be the case), but I wasn't convinced that the truly fortified stuff (sherry, Madeira, port and the like) would be quite the thing. In the end, I decided to use a bottle of Vin Santo that I happened to have lying around . . . waiting for that moment when I might make cantucci. It is a sweet wine, much lighter than Madeira, and I liked the fact that it has a "pronounced scent of toasted almonds and dried apricots." Nigella claims that Madeira is best, so you will have to use your own judgment on this one. As for the rum, try to get one from the Caribbean. I used one called Lamb's Genuine Navy Rum, but as long as it is a dark rum, I would go with whatever is on special offer. Having already invested in the fruit and spirits, I have to say that "Homemade" is not the cheapest way to go. I find it somewhat worrying that Tesco's can sell small fruitcakes for just a few pounds.

And another pertinent thing: You will be amazed by how much rum can be drunk by this fruit. I expected a watery mess, but actually the fruit will be thick, albeit liquid, by the time you give it a good stir. I had a taste: Delicious! Just as well, because by my kitchen scale's reckoning -- and depending on how heavy your container is -- you should have about 7 pounds of highly alcoholic fruit.

Part II: Baking the Cake

Before you read the following list of ingredients, you might enjoy Laurie Colwin's words on the subject: "It is a beautiful, old-fashioned recipe . . . (which) comes from a time when cakes were cakes and no one bothered much about using a dozen eggs at a shot."

Laurie herself points out that you could halve the recipe, but why then go to all the bother? "The spirit of this recipe is celebratory, lavish and openhaded. It seems the right thing to make two and give one to someone you feel very strongly about." My plan is to make one big one, and then as many small ones (using a small loaf pan) as I can get out of the left-overs.

1 pound butter
1 pound dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 dozen eggs
1 pound plus 1/2 cup flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 pound burnt sugar, or 4 ounces burnt sugar essence*

1. Butter and flour two deep 9-inch cake tins and set aside. Preheat oven to 350F/175C.
2. Cream butter and brown sugar.
3. Add the fruit and wine mixture.
4. Add vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon.
5. Beat in eggs.
6. Add flour and baking powder, and then burnt sugar. Mix well.
7. Bake in cake tins for 60 - 75 minutes.
8. When cake is absolutely cool, wrap it in waxed paper and let it sit until you are ready to ice it.

My reflections: The mixing order of this cake is rather unorthodox. The recipe for Trinidad Black Cake suggests a more typical order of events: first creaming, then adding eggs one by one; then dry ingredients; and finally adding the fruit mixture, to which you have added the vanilla and burnt sugar. Even though I want to stick with Laurie as much as possible, I think that I will probably follow this latter instruction when it comes to mixing up the batter.

Notes on burnt sugar: In Nigella's version of the recipe, on pp. 250-252 of How to be a Domestic Goddess, she substitutes molasses for the burnt sugar. I am very opposed to this substitution: it seems to be against both the spirit and the letter of the recipe.

I'm planning on making my own burnt sugar, which is probably a necessity since I don't know of any West Indian grocery store nearby. (If you live in, New York City for instance, you might be able to buy the essence.) Colwin's instructions for making your own burnt sugar are a kind of vague hearsay: "Betty suggests putting a pound of brown sugar in a heavy skillet with a little water and boiling it gently until it begins to turn black. You do want to overboil. It should be only slightly bitter, black and definitely not burnt."

Still on the subject of burnt sugar, I found other words of guidance from this recipe: Put brown sugar in heavy pot. Stir, letting sugar liquefy. Cook over low heat until dark, stirring constantly, so sugar does not burn. When almost burnt, remove from heat and stir in hot water gradually. Mix well, let cool, and pour into container for use in final cooking.

Laurie Colwin freely admits that she has never made a black cake herself. Well, I haven't either -- yet -- but I feel confident enough about cake baking in general, and the capacity of my Kitchen Aid mixer in specific, to suggest making up this cake batter in two batches. Those of you with large commercial mixers may do as you like!

Part III: Icing the Cake

Laurie Colwin is a bit vague on "icing" instruction. She suggests that you use "the simplest white icing made of powdered sugar and egg white with the addition of half a teaspoon of almond extract."

Nigella Lawson takes the Black Cake down a traditionally English path at this juncture: a thin coating of marmalade goes on top of the cake, to be covered with marzipan, and finally a thick crust of Royal icing -- that ready-to-roll white fondant which can be purchased in blocks in any English grocery store.

In this
New York Times article, they leave the cake un-iced.

I will probably opt for an English version of the icing, as that is what my audience will expect. Pictures to follow in December!

But why stop at Black Cake? While I'm charting unexplored food territory, I may just venture further into the English culinary landscape. Today I lay down my fruit; tomorrow, there are new food worlds to conquer. Chutney! Pickled onions! Canning jars at the ready!

Sunday, 9 November 2008


Apparently November is almost always the rainiest month of the year in England.

I read that in The Guardian a couple of days ago, and it would seem that the weather gods are right on schedule. Today the wind has blown, the rain has come down, and all sensible creatures have stayed indoors.

I've mostly stayed indoors -- and certainly would have been entirely sensible if I were a more organized person. Since I'm not very organized, though, I had to make the windswept trek to Sainsbury's to buy the Big Meat which is de rigueur for English Sunday lunch. Usually, I feed my family "girl" food -- pasta, salad, soup and cookies. It is not unknown for the girls and I to eat popcorn and apples for dinner. However, because it was Remembrance Day, and dark and wet to boot, I felt that red meat was somehow called for.

Our house is a converted barn, and the long, low roof means that the light is dim on dark days. The huge oak beams are mostly salvaged from the old timbers of ships. When the wind blows mightily, the timbers creak and one feels strange, swirling drafts. There are times when our house seems to rock ever so slightly, and I have a whimsical notion that this tempered wood holds memories of the wild, tossing sea. Inevitably, these same drafts remind Sigmund to nag me about getting in someone to plug the many cracks between wood and plaster.

An iron ring, for tying up cattle one assumes, still hangs off the beam above my kitchen sink. Like the dumb cow, I often feel tethered to the kitchen on bad weather weekends. On the positive side, when the oven is baking hot and I've got at least two of the burners aflame and crackling with gas, the kitchen is the warmest room in the house. It's also nice to have the Sunday papers handy when everything is simmering.

I'm certainly grateful that I didn't have to keep running outdoors for wood, because I kept my stove going for the better part of the day. I made biscuits, and wheat bread, and a slow-cooking casserole, and an apple and walnut cake. I also made red pepper soup for "starters," so my family had the most unusual experience of having a three course meal at home. It was a lot of up-front effort, but tomorrow the menu is all about left-overs.

I'm really more "reader" than chef, but elaborating on the coq au vin I made Friday night, I braised some lamb shanks with many of the same good things: mushrooms, shallots, bacon and lots of red wine. Served over mashed potatoes, it was warming, comforting and filling. This dish made me wish for a big dog, though, because there were such nice meaty bones left on the plates. (Can you give chickens lamb shanks?)

Speaking of chickens, one of the downsides of being a chicken owner is that they want to eat, too -- even on horrid days. Unfortunately, it was also change-the-straw day . . . and my youngest daughter drew the short stick. I wish that I had charged up my brand-new camera (!), because the sight of my daughter kitted out for her outdoors chores really deserved a visual. Believe me, none of Shackleton's men were better prepared -- although West Berkshire is hardly the South Pole, even on the most Novemberish day. In addition to the usual jean, jacket and wellies combo, she added a fake fur ski cap, a scarf, mittens and goggles! Even if I had had the camera at the ready, her anonymity would have been easily preserved.

The wind is still howling, but I've got clean sheets, a new book, and a human-sized water bottle to cuddle up with. I'm reading A London Child of the 1870s right now, and the cozy reminiscences suit my mood perfectly. I suppose it's because I associate the era with dark fog, but Victorian novels always seem right for Novemberish days.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Election euphoria

Having stayed up most of the night to watch the U.S. election returns, I am feeling rather dazed today -- but in a good way. I feel equal parts jubilation and amazement, my head aches, and my throat hurts from constantly being on the verge of tears. Anything seems to set me off: Obama's acceptance speech, McCain's concession speech, the simple and hopeful words of an elderly African woman who was speaking on Radio 4 this morning.

For weeks now, I have felt an anxiety something like a constant lowgrade fever and stomach ache combined. Having suffered indignant disbelief in 2000, and bitter disappointment in 2004, I have hardly dared hope too much for a more positive outcome in 2008. The Bush Years have tested my patriotism, and made me very uncomfortable, at times, to be an American abroad. Despite knowing the isolationist, non-passport holding tendencies of many Americans, I have still railed at the seemingly oblivious lack of regard for the opinions of the rest of the world. Every time President Bush has boasted of bringing democracy to another benighted corner of the globe, it has set my teeth on edge.

There is a certain kind of American that I have trouble understanding. Why is a totally self-made black man -- surely the epitome of the American Dream -- criticized for being elitist? How can a rich white man, who has benefited from nepotism and cronyism his entire life, be considered "just folks" and the true representative of Joe Six-Pack? And why, speaking of beer, does wanting to share a brew with the man count as a solid qualification for the most important job in the world? Shouldn't demonstrated intelligence, eloquence, coolness under pressure, and a law degree count for a bit more?

No matter how comfortable I feel in England, I know that Americans will always be family . . . precisely because they can make me so crazy.

They can also make me so proud.

Most people think that Barack Obama, at age 47, is a young man to be President. Yet he was born into an America which wouldn't even pass the Civil Rights Act until he was three years old. He was already 14, a young teenager, when a court order demanded that the Houston Independent School District comply with desegregation.

A few years ago I was teaching in an inner-city Houston school, and I was amazed to discover that most of my black students seemed to think -- de facto -- that all white teachers were racist. Our city was flooded by Hurricane Katrina refugees that year, and the consensus opinion was outrage, but hardly surprise. Indeed, the neglect of the U.S. Government just seemed to confirm what many of these young Americans had suspected all along. They knew so little, really; but somehow they had already learned cynicism.

I have no idea what preconceived notions and deep-held beliefs have been overturned by the reality that America can -- and has -- elected a mixed-race man with an exotic name to be President. Truly, I am dazed by hope for what this could mean for all of us.