Making and decorating the Christmas cake has always been an important ritual in our family. The recipe was handed down from my Grandmother and handwritten in my mother’s college recipe book. In modern times my mother has always made the cake – to be shared with my in-laws and cousins as well as our own family. The cake was universally acknowledged as the best anyone had ever tasted. The cake itself darker and moister than any other. The marzipan softer and less sweet. The icing whiter and more lemony. The decorations – a pine tree, a tiny house and church, and a larger Santa, placed in the foreground to get the perspective right – were also handed down from my grandmother. My only task as a child ( and young adult!) would be to stir the cake mixture and make a wish; to scrape out leftover icing and make peppermint creams and to place the figures on the finished cake. A few years ago my children took on these roles and mum would wait til they came to stay to make and decorate the cake.
But this year was different. This year for the first time my mum was not here to make the cake. She died very suddenly in August. So the cake and pudding making would be left to her only daughter – Oh God- that meant me.
I had still done nothing about it – other than telling my sister-in-law that I would take on the tasks – when in early December one of my oldest friends arrived with a birthday present and accompanying note. She had made the cake to my mother’s recipe ( it had been handed sideways as well as down the generations!) and was giving it to me – the loveliest most unusual present which of course made me cry and not only because she had had no time for the icing or marzipan. I would need to do that myself.
So this week as the day approached I dug out some apricot jam from the back of the fridge for the glaze ( to glue the marzipan on) and bought the ground almonds and icing sugar and eggs. I had no-one to ask whether organic eggs were important as they would not be cooked – or how on earth to get the marzipan onto the cake. I watched a video on youtube, read Delia and the BBC and Good Housekeeping online, saw that involved gymnastics with a rolling pin and wished I’d picked up mum’s handwritten recipe book last time I was there.
In fact I made the marzipan fairly easily – but had no rolling pin – so left it in the fridge for another day. I had read it could be left for two days like this – in the event it was three – was that the cause of my later problems?
So… the rolling pin borrowed from my in-laws and minus one handle arrived and the marzipan was duly rolled. The cake was measured with string and checked against the width of marzipan ( Yes, you three other people out there who have never made a Christmas cake like I hadn’t – it is much more complicated and time consuming than you might imagine!)
So we rolled and rolled, and it got thinner and thinner – so it would cover not only the top but also the sides – all in one piece. I lifted the edge with a palette knife little by little – it had somehow stuck to the marble top – and the children pushed the huge rolling pin under as I lifted. Allegedly other people do this bit on their own! We got the rolling pin under… but the marzipan seemed too dry and too thin.
” I need to lift it! Quickly! Move! Help! lift! Put the video camera down NOW!” I said really calmly and not at all like someone shouting hysterically.
And we lifted and Alexander shoved the cake under sideways and Amelie tried to support the edges .. and we had it half way across the top when… Splat! One side broke off and fell clinging to the side of the cake and draping over the cakeboard and worktop.
” Mummy FAIL”, the children laughed in delight.
” Turn the camera off now… before I say something naughty,” I said sweetly – or maybe I didn’t – I haven’t watched the video back to check!
After I’d sobbed for 10 minutes, I gathered the pieces together that had not made it to their destination. I ripped and I patted and I used the apricot jam as glue and I patchworked it back together and somehow I covered the cake. And in the half light,( it was daylight when we started), if you stood a long way back and squinted, the cake looked fairly like one my mother might have made.
See the finished – rather unusual looking – cake in the next installment !!