Making her Christmas cake has made award-winning food writer Nicola Miller nostalgic, stirring up memories of family traditions and tales of pecan nuts. . .
The instructions for my favourite basic fruit cake are as terse as one’s least favourite aunt: “Put fruit, sugar, margarine or butter, and water in a pan. Simmer slowly for twenty minutes. Allow to cool. Add beaten egg and stir in Be-Ro flour. Turn into a greased 6inch tin. Bake in a VERY MODERATE OVEN (300-350F) for about 1½ hours.” It is as if the writer has run out of patience. I don’t use margarine (and neither did my grandparents at whose side I baked this cake for the best part of eight years), but the cake comes from a booklet called Be-Ro Home Recipes which graced the homes of many families from 1923 onwards and was originally intended for cooks on a lower budget. Now in its 41st edition, it has sold 38 million copies.
When my grandparents died and I was tasked with the job of clearing their home, I searched high and low for their time-torn copy whose vividly coloured illustrations made me think of the kind of cakes that Bad Harry and My Naughty Little Sister might steal from the pantry. I could not find it so I spent too much money on a second-hand copy from eBay instead. It is not the same edition, but it will do for now.
There is no doubt that the Be-Ro recipe is a plain cake though (not that there is anything wrong with that per se), but at Christmas I want to bake something a little merrier without sacrificing ease of preparation, so I have tinkered with it a bit. And the boiled method really is easy. All the ingredients bar the eggs, pecans and flour are chucked into a deep saucepan and brought to a gentle boil. The butter browns to a nutty intensity, the sugars from the dried fruit lightly caramelise and the result is a plumper cake, taught with juiciness.
People have strong feelings about fruit cake. Slices of wedding fruitcake with stucco-like layers of icing and marzipan left to desiccate on a plate until they are wrapped up, taken home, and fed to the birds two days later have jaundiced our collective memories. And fruit cake after massive Christmas feasting can feel like too much of a good thing. Remember that Johnny Carson joke about fruit cake? “The worst gift is a fruitcake,” he said on his eponymous show. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Having tried one of the tinned fruit cakes Americans used to send each other through the mail, I am not surprised he said that because they are awful. Filled with luridly-coloured glace fruit loosely bound together by a mortar-like crumb, they are a million miles away from the description of Sook and Buddy making fruitcakes together in Truman Capote’s book A Christmas Memory, a short story I read each Christmas:
‘The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odours saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days, our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whisky, bask on windowsills and shelves.’
Prior to baking their cakes, Sook and Buddy (Truman’s nickname) venture out into the cool air of an Alabama November to collect windfall pecans which they haul back to the kitchen in Buddy’s old wicker baby carriage, accompanied by Queenie the terrier who is herself partial to a pecan.
“Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves,” writes Capote and this always makes me smile because two years ago we spent some time on a farm in Picayune, Mississippi, during the pecan harvest and close at heel were three Australian shepherd dogs with the glossiest, softest coats you’ve ever seen. They had odd-coloured eyes and an instinctive need to herd everyone and everything. They even circled our suitcases as we unloaded the car. Their good health was down to all the pecans they consumed, the farmer said, and the dogs had grown adept not only at begging prettily as the nuts were hulled, but also following the tractors and trucks whose tires crushed the stippled nutshells underfoot. We collected bag loads of pecans and the dogs arranged themselves in a semi-circle around us. We must have shelled several hundred nuts as the quarter horses whickered softly to themselves in the paddock, soothed by a tawny autumn sun slanting through the pecan branches. The dogs grew sleepy on their evening meal of good, rich and oily nut meat.
Stuck at home, I am nostalgic for that time, which explains why there are pecans in this cake and a decidedly American vibe, stuffed as it is with dried cherries and cranberries although my choice of rum as a soak instead of bourbon is a bit of a deviation. Capote lived in a dry part of Alabama and the whisky that went into their cakes was moonshine bought from “a ‘sinful’ fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river”. The acquisition of rum from my local store is far less perilous. Unlike the café Sook went to, no murders have occurred in Waitrose although when flour stocks were running low during the first lockdown, I saw a man turn as puce as the cords that adorned his bottom half.
I am also nostalgic for the time when I baked cakes with my grandparents. My wrists are tired after stirring because that is what I did as a kid; my grandmother’s baking was low-tech and I stood on a chair to give me the purchase of height and stirred with both hands clamped to a wooden spoon as the flour was added. I don’t need to stand on a chair anymore at the glorious height of 5ft 1in but the mixture feels as sturdy as it did when I was nine. It is a workout. “Never bake bad news into the cake, Nic,” my grandfather would remind me as we collared the tin with newspaper and wound around it a cat’s cradle of butchers string as if we were trying to keep the birds off it. I choose my paper wrapping carefully, checking each page for bad news and my God this year it was a hard job to find one single uplifting page. I ended up using a torn-up weekend food magazine. I am not a superstitious person so I do not know why I cling to these beliefs. We weave tales about food and they are mostly harmless nonsense which we do not truly believe, but at Christmas these stories and superstitions hold extra resonance.
Merry Christmas to you all.
A BOILED FRUIT AND NUT CHRISTMAS CAKE
5 tablespoons dark rum (plus extra for feeding the cake)
60g dried cherries
60g dried cranberries
60g prunes, chopped
60g pecans, chopped
175g salted butter
175g soft brown sugar
350g self-raising flour
1½ teaspoons mixed spice
3 large eggs, beaten
The day before you bake the cake, put the dried fruit in a bowl and pour over the rum. Leave to soak for 24 hours (although you can soak for longer should you so wish. Remember to stir the fruit and rum from time to time.)
When you are ready to bake, heat your oven to 150C/300F/Gas mark 2.
Pour the fruit and rum, butter, sugar and spice into a large pan and bring it slowly to the boil, stirring constantly. Boil and stir very gently for three minutes then remove from heat and let it cool down.
When it is cool, fold in the pecans then add the beaten eggs and flour in three separate amounts, folding the mixture until there are no streaks of flour to be seen.
Pour the cake mixture into a greased and lined 18cm round cake tin. Now make a collar from newspaper and wrap the cake tin inside it, securing with string. This helps the cake bake evenly, preventing the outer crumb from getting too dark, too soon. Bake in the oven for 2 hours or until a skewer inserted into the cake’s centre comes out clean. I start checking the cake after one-and-a-half hours because ovens vary. If the top looks as if it is browning too fast, cover it with a piece of baking paper.
When it is baked, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Once it is cool, poke holes all over the surface of the cake and pour over 1 tablespoon of rum. Repeat each week, ensuring the cake is well wrapped and stored in a cool dry place in the interim. Ice and decorate a few days before Christmas Day, although I do not ice and marzipan my Christmas cake as a rule.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020