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!