Our town and country columnists debate a red-hot issue: when to bake a Christmas cake
I pride myself on making a very good Christmas cake. All my friends and family know this. Even neighbour Ron comes over to swap lemons for slices of my cake. And, as with all my cooking, it isn’t a difficult recipe. It’s in Common Table as the “Shortest Day Cake” – the new title being an example of a Wellington-style sensitivity. I had to rename the cake when I took one to a morning tea at a large corporation and was told that my calling it “Christmas cake” wasn’t culturally inclusive.
I make the cake on a Sunday morning so I can stir and mix to the accompaniment of the cathedral bells, which peal at 9.30 every Sunday. The cathedral is in front of my house but the sound cascades off the hill behind me. That’s an example of how even the tintinnabulation is inclusive here in Thorndon.
I cook it in a tin and it works perfectly. The tin is square, so it has that in common with your wooden boxes. I’ve never liked a round Christmas cake. You need to be able to cut it systematically, in small, equal pieces. They have ploughing competitions for the straightest furrow but there’s never a competition for the straightest slices of cake.
A few years ago, on a Christmas Eve, I left the Christmas cake in its airtight plastic box on the kitchen bench and went to a party. When I came home, I thought the place had been trashed. There was wrapping paper and destroyed presents everywhere. The cake was gone. Surely my reputation for making the best Christmas cake hadn’t resulted in this sort of desperate breaking and entering?
I walked into the bedroom and there, lying on the bed, was a vast Zeppelin shape. It had a paw sticking out at each corner. It was one bloated Labrador. Bunsen. He was perhaps the greatest fan of my cake.
PS How is your new puppy and will he enjoy his first Christmas?
This letter is my rejoinder to your “I’m mounding my potatoes” letter. I’ve been anointing my Christmas cake with brandy. You screech, “But it’s too soon, we’re too busy to make premature Christmas cakes in central Wellington.” I say, “That’s no excuse. Everyone should make their Christmas cakes before October.” Early baking allows the cake to mature with frequent infusions of brandy and frees you from last-minute rushes.
I have always baked my Christmas cake in a wooden box because my mother insisted this was the only way to bake a good fruit cake. Mother’s fruit cake boxes were made from kahikatea or white pine; it has no smell so is ideal for cake baking. She had the boxes made by a Gisborne timber company which manufactured export butter boxes. When I moved into my first flat, Mother gave me two kahikatea cake boxes as a flat-warming present. I still have one of them. I had to replace the other a few years ago. “Dead-eye Stan”, a veteran pig shooter and cabinetmaker who used to shoot pigs here, made me tonew ones. They should see me out. I shall leave them to Fleur. A kahikatea cake box is an heirloom.
I alternate between two recipes from The Mainland Touch Great Christmas Cake Bake Competition, which was held in the long-ago days of local TV programming. Ten local celebrities contributed recipes to accompany the 10 finalists’ recipes. My Christmas cakes are both celebrity cakes. One was Mona Anderson’s and is entitled Princess Marina’s Wedding Cake in Miniature; the other is the Deans family Christmas cake from the mid-1840s. It was submitted by Robbie Deans, currently rugby coach for the Wallabies, who was apparently too shy to visit the TV studio. Shyness is obviously no barrier to great achievement.
PS You can find kahikatea cake boxes at The Wooden Cakebox Company
Story: Janice Marriott; Virginia Pawsey