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!


Alyson (New England Living) said...

I totally dug this quote -"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". You sound exactly like me! I love it!

I'm a completely last minute Christmas shopper/preparer. I hate it and I always tell myself next year it will be different, but it never is.

Brave Sir Robin said...

I was once a plan ahead, make a list, uber-prepared holiday type, but as I now dread more than anticipate the holidays, planning for them is tantamount to accepting they are approaching . . . . .

I do, however, still enjoy a bit of holiday baking, and last year I found a cookie recipe that is a bit like a light and buttery fruitcake that, shock and amazement, they kids love! Maybe I'll try this one them. I have noticed that they prefer dried fruits such as raisins and dried cherries, etc.... to candied citron and the like.

Baking for the holidays? YES!!

Wrapping gifts? YUCK!

Brave Sir Robin said...

AWKKK! choking on my typos ....

Sarah Laurence said...

Isn't there a rule about no X-mas before Thanksgiving? I'm still one to buy something that is perfect for someone no matter how far ahead it is. Then we do the last minute scramble.

I have a tradition with one family of relatives of exchanging books every X-mas. Books get away from the materialism of the holidays back to sharing something special.

Also book sales are way down now. If we still want to see anything but "gift" and celebrity books published, we need to put our money where our reading eyes are.

Your baking spree is totally in line with the X-mas spirit. Glad you found a good recipe and thanks for sharing it.

Boarding school? Really? Bee, I just don't see you doing that easily.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Sarah -

I have a tradition with one family of relatives of exchanging books every X-mas. Books get away from the materialism of the holidays back to sharing something special.

THAT, Is such a wonderful and obvious idea, that I can't imagine why I have never thought of it.

And this:

Also book sales are way down now. If we still want to see anything but "gift" and celebrity books published, we need to put our money where our reading eyes are.

Is a wonderful idea as well.

Also -

Boarding school? Really? Bee, I just don't see you doing that easily.

Same thing I said.

Alyson -

So you said you are allowed soft drinks, right? Drink a Moxie for me. Nectar of the Gods, I swear!

Bee - Once again, when you are asleep, I have hijacked your comment thread.

We would love picture of the buttery fruitcake!!!!

Elizabeth said...

Have you noticed how much food there is in the Narnia stories?
I'm a bit iffy about boarding schools having been at one in Worcestershire between the ages of 9 and 17.
Very Dotheboys Hall.
Your cake making sounds epic.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I have reached the point of wishing I could just hibernate until after the new year--mostly to avoid this depressing early darkness. I haven't felt like cooking anything! I sent out for Thai last night, which is something I never do.

I do have a small stash of pressies, mostly for the folks back home. Like you, I am trying to keep the calendar straight. Don't know how you do it with your girls' busy, busy schedules.

I am going to buy "Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer" for myself!! Maybe it will pick me up :-)

Nimble said...

Thank you for the note about the English pint measurement. I would have stubbed my toe there.

JaneyV said...

Bee that fruitcake sounds fantastic and so easy even I couldn't muck it up! I may actually bake something this Christmas!

I never do anything about Christmas till December. Occasionally I but something for the kiddies before then but only to spread the cost - not to be organised!
I am so bad at sending out cards on time I have heard the phrase "New Year isn't New Year without a Christmas card from Jane" many times. But it all amazingly gets done and I never stress over it.

But I have to say the school schedule always winds me up!

Bee said...

Alyson - When you say "last minute," do you mean that you go knowing exactly what you want to buy . . . or are you one of those sad people wandering around, panicked, on Christmas Eve?

BSR - Yes, holidays can be quite despressing. I hope that yours isn't, though. Do you have all of the kids this year?

I used to love to wrap presents when I was younger, but increasingly, it feels like a chore. I need to put on a good movie (that I already know quite well) and "get stuck in," as Jamie Oliver says.

Sarah -- Well, I think the rule is that there is no "exterior manifestation" (meaning, the tree) of Xmas until after Thanksgiving! We put up our tree the first weekend of December. As for the other stuff, I feel uncomfortable if I don't have some presents tucked away by November! We always, always give lots of books - to friends and family.

As for the boarding school thing, my oldest daughter is absolutely determined that she wants to do that for Sixth Form. We aren't thrilled, but I suppose we have come around to the idea.

BSR - We have eaten one fruitcake, and I gave away the other! Next time! To be honest, though, this is an "eating" cake -- quite homely -- and not at all like the fancy fruit and nut things you are accustomed to.

Elizabeth - The school we visited was Malvern College -- coincidentally, the alma mater of C.S. Lewis -- whose Narnia Chronicles you refer to. I'm sure that the inhabitants of boarding schools fantasize about good food. Perhaps this is one reason that "tea" is so popular? Because cakes and scones and sandwiches are more likely to be tasty?

JAPRA - I guarantee that you will enjoy "Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer." You will be transported to an endless summer's day in Cornwall -- where the sun is always shining and there are "lashings" of lemonade and ginger beer.

Nimble - Yes, it is rarely pointed out that an English pint is 20 oz, while an American one has only 16 oz!

JaneyV - I think that you would LOVE this fruitcake. It is a super-easy, stir in the bowl, deal -- and deliciously buttery.

One of my best-ever Xmas card pictures was my toddler wearing nothing but diapers and the remains of our New Year's Eve party gear! In my mind, the point is to make contact . . . if it's not until New Year's or after, well nevermind!

Sylvia said...

My son (14) is in boarding school in Sussex and really loves it. It's done a lot for his personal organisation and the one thing I really love is not having to fight with him about homework.

But yeah, it's not easy and I struggle not to make him phone me every evening :P

We'll be in England this Christmas so I won't be doing the mad baking thing but I am tempted to make a fruitcake to take along. Otherwise, I know the desserts we'll be getting are all Marks and Spencers - something I simply can not get nostalgic about.

Sarah Laurence said...

BSR, you've inspired me to blog about this book gift idea. Next week maybe. You drink Moxie? You sound like a transplanted Mainer.

Bee, I could have guessed that it was her idea!

Brave Sir Robin said...

Sarah -

Yes, I love Moxie, but it isn't available down here. Oh, and I wish I lived Maine.

Jan said...

Brilliant blog post!!
And I do exactly the same re gift 10 for one person, 0 for someone else...
some folk are wonderfully simple to buy for...
OR is that you feel more akin to their taste..
But enough of this: having read your post I've got to go down to my kitchen to seek cake...

Cindy said...

Bee ~ I just realized that although I read your post a while ago I was tired and did not comment at the time. But that leaves me to enjoy rereading and I can comment now, when I should be making lunch (pita pizzas by the way).

In order to avoid shipping several gifts I had to be somewhat ready before Thanksgiving. With only marginal ideas I was wandering about the store but actually was very fortunate to find perfect presents in one outing. But no matter how ready I am I always find things last minute that strike me as perfect. Whether they are or not is a different story.

And of course the thought of the Christmas feast and cookies is already weighing on my mind. This calls for a greater strategy than the presents. But I can't think about it now, first there must be glorious turkey next week. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Anil P said...

I can only imagine how nice it must taste :) Is there a picture of the fruit cake you might want to post?

Nostalgia seems to season like wine with time. Moments past live in the longing of memories.

Bee said...

Sylvia - My daughter is also 14! We are looking at boarding school for Sixth Form, so there are still nearly two years of her adolescence for us to enjoy. :) As for M&S, I did a big shop there today. I got some really cute tins of biscuits (the sweet and the savoury kind) for teacher's presents. I have to admit that their Xmas cakes and puddings looked good!

Jan - I think you've hit the nail on the head! People with similar taste (ie, best friends) are definitely easy to buy for -- as are children. Fathers and grandfathers, not so much.

BTW, I gave one of these fruitcakes to a friend of mine who's recuperating from surgery and she RAVED about it. Easy and scrummy -- I promise.

Cindy - I understand the mailing overseas problem. I'm hoping to get mine in the mail next week.

I think that one of my favorite bits is figuring out the menu. I am going to a friend's house for Thanksgiving, so that frees me up to focus on my Christmas dinner.
Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

Anil - No pictures now, but I just might make this one again! I will definitely post pictures of the Black Cake, but that will have to wait for December.

Nostalgia is a curious thing. I feel like I need to give it, and its particular pleasures, some serious thought.

Nimble said...

Is 12 oz. butter really three sticks? Aiee.

Bee said...

Yes, it is possible that this cake is delicious because it has so much butter in it! But remember, it makes two cakes. Divide and conquer, I say.

david mcmahon said...

Nothing succeeds like excess.

(I think)

Thanks for the visit and the comment - I'm so glad you liked my Yukon mountain reflection shot.

Elizabeth said...

I went to the now defunct Abbey School, Malvern Wells.
We played games against Malvern Girls College all the time.
My father and grandfather were both Headboy of Malvern Boys' College.
e-mail me so I can bore you with Malvern and CS Lewis lore etc.
Good luck with the cake making.

Lucy said...

I was a nanny when I was 19 at the Downs prep school in Worcestershire, same one Auden taught at before the war when he had his religious epiphany. I didn't have any religious epiphanies though. Just thought I'd throw that in!

Isn't it funny how you alwys find lots of nice presents for some people and keep avoiding thinking about others? I tend to get all organised with some things quite early then feel complacent so at the last minute I realise there's masses I've not done. But fleeing the country and having half one's family do likewise has simplified things quite a bit.

It's the cards I dread, really. I wish I could completely assimilate and become French and give them up, but then I'd have to send them out in the New Year, which always seems a dismal anti-climax.

The cake sounds delicious.

Lucy said...

PS I just remembered a cartoon I saw once (I hope it wasn't here...) of a slice of fruitcake saying to a psychiatrist 'I keep thinking nobody likes me...', and the psychiatrist's thought bubble says 'Fruitcake!'

Bee said...

David - In this case, a bit of excess is definitely good!

Elizabeth - I WILL email you about Malvern. How funny to find that you are an expert on the subject. (BTW, I would love to know some CS Lewis lore.) When I was standing in the school's chapel, I couldn't help think but how my father would adore it. (He is a major Lewis fan, although the word "fan" doesn't sound quite right. Admirer? Devotee?)

Lucy - It is strange that you and Elizabeth, former Worc. residents, are now living out of the country . . . no connection, I hope?

Your second paragraph describes my Xmas approach perfectly. Every year I resolve that I will be perfectly organized and serene on the 24th, yet there is usually some mad dash. I agree: the cards are the worst. And yet, I couldn't bear not to receive any. As good an example of quid pro quo as any that I can think of. I tried to take a picture of the girls this weekend -- but nothing stunning came out of that grim session, teeth gritted agaist the cold wind.

PS I like your fruitcake joke! This fruitcake is sublime, though. It's storybook fruitcake.

Yolanda said...

I loved this post. I always learn something interesting when I visit you.

bonbon said...

As you may recall I do have OCD tendencies and a loathing of global postal services. So I am embarrased to confess that the majority of my Xmas gifts were all wrapped and labelled in July! Yes 5 months ago on my annual pilgrimage to the UK I deposited all family gifts to the recipients. On the home front all are purchased and I even wrapped all of those last weekend as I was so bored. This does seem to be my M.O. as being overseas forces me to plan ahead to avoid the posting costs. I can relate to the bags thrown in heap in various locations throughout the house. Xmas cards will not be an option for me this year as I was in no place to purchase them in bulk. So it will be e-mail greetings but like you I would be sad not to recieve some myself. Still we shall be baking the usual festive goodies which will no doubt add a little mayhem and high spirits and create the right atmosphere.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

I haven't heard from you in a long time, and by that I mean I haven't seen any updates. I hope you're well and the lack of new material is just from you being super busy. Best wishes!

Jan said...

WHERE are you?!
Hope you're OK and look forward to your next post!

Bee said...

Yolanda - Thank you! I'm so glad to know that you visit, and I'm sorry that I've been a stranger here myself.

Bon Bon - You, my friend, take Xmas preparation to extremes! EEK! The Xmas card picture . . . it is the blot on my Xmas report card.

Alyson and Jan - Yes, my social life has gotten the best of me. I promise a post tomorrow!

Bee said...

BTW, I made this fruitcake again for my Bridge Club Xmas party last night and it was a bit hit. One man actually wrested the plate of leftover crumbs out of my hand and insisted on mopping them up. True unembellished story!

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