“There’s nothing better than Christmas cake.” I declare this indistinctly, between licks at the beater that has lately been mixing said dessert.
“If it’s made properly,” my mother adds. She stands opposite me in our small apartment kitchen, her manner marginally more demure than mine, as she uses a spatula to scrape the last, tiniest remnants of batter from its bowl.
It’s true. Some may call it fruitcake and rush into negative judgments, but this is not the small bar of candied cherries, citron, and pecans you pay $10 for at a supermarket. This is dried apricots, figs, sultanas, and cherries—all bought especially for the endeavor. And it is raisins, cranberries, and dates, and whatever other dried fruits have been languishing in my fridge—forgotten as snacks, they and their newly purchased brethren have now gotten happily tipsy on Irish whiskey, tenderly sprinkled with allspice, companionably joined by almonds, and finally, combined with the holy trinity: sugar, eggs, and butter—well in our case, it’s dairy-free soy margarine, and the flour that brings it all together is gluten-free, but this matters not one iota. I offer it a silent blessing as it disappears into the oven, where it will bake casually, not rushing, meditating gently in the oven for a few hours and when it cools, I will treat it to another swig of Jameson, wrap it lovingly in wax paper and aluminum foil, and then . . . I will wait.
Truth be told, I won’t be waiting as long as I should. Typically, one gives the cake 3 to 4 weeks to let it settle into itself, its flavors lusciously mingling and melding. I’ve heard stories of people in Britain who start the process as early as September, taking the cake out every few weeks to give it another wee dram. However, after having spent just about my entire life in New York, I have recently moved all the way to Louisiana. A week after Halloween, as they brought box after heavy box up the stairs, the movers commented on how wonderful it would be to be “home for the holidays,” so to speak. It’s true—especially since the move meant getting closer to family that already live here, but the business of becoming a Louisianan has eaten into much of my holiday prep time. I debated not making the cake at all. Why bother? And yet . . . it called to me. As I write this, I think, how ridiculous! It’s only a cake. It’s not even a family tradition. I learned about Christmas cakes through both my literary journeys and actual travels to Britain and Ireland. There is no ancestral link here, and yet, as I chop the fruit, I somehow always feel a certain sense of prayerfulness. I feel a strange satisfaction as my chef’s knife finds its way through the slight resistance of the leathery fruit. I revel in the colors offered by each morsel—tiny gems when they are lit up by the whiskey. And when I add those lovely bits to the batter, stirring carefully, I feel a warming completeness. This is something that is right, my heart says. In a life of uncertainty and pain, at this moment, as I mix together a silly Christmas cake, all is right with my world.
Christmas is only 2 weeks away (please don’t go running and screaming away from your computer in panic at this thought), so if it is to be a true Christmas cake and not a New Year’s one, as I have considered deeming it, it will only have a matter of days to rest before I wake it from its slumber, enrobe it in marzipan and fondant, decorate it in some fashion or other, and begin selling tickets for a chance to taste it.
Oh wait, did I just forget the true meaning of Christmas? Did I mention how good this thing is? No, I won’t really charge for the privilege of having a piece of my exalted cake. In fact, I’m quite certain that I will wish that I could share it with many more people—the ones I won’t see this Christmas—those left behind in New York and those other dear ones all over the world. You see, Christmas cake is about coming together—no matter how nutty you may think you are, bringing to life what you have—even if you view yourself as old or dried out, and realizing that when your gifts are joined with those of others, truly magical things can happen.