Poor Marie Antoinette. She never said it. But she’s suffered from that blighting propaganda ever since. What she needed, and still needs, is a good spin doctor to right her dreadful wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake. (She was actually a devoted and intelligent mother, and I think I’d have gone mad if I’d been her, and known of the barbaric treatment the revolutionaries meted out to her eight- year -old son after she was beheaded during The Terror. Her son died two years later, by then completely mute, disease-ridden, covered in scars from beatings, and unable to walk. The past was sometimes as cruel as the present…)
But to return to the subject of cake. In the days when a woman’s place was in the home, and preferably in the kitchen, cake was part of that equation. I grew up in the fifties when women were still supposed to be there, and watched my stepmother struggle with the expectations around cake in those days. Her steak and kidney puddings had to be tasted to be believed, her steak pies with perfect pastry were sumptuous, as were her heavenly steamed ginger puddings and apple pies, but cakes were not her thing.
The pinnacle of cake-makings skills back then was the Victoria sponge. A pretty boring version of cake, and now long out of favour, but back then, the classic Victoria sponge was a firm cake cooked in two tins, and glued together with raspberry jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar. Simple, but like all simple things, more difficult than it looks.
I would come home from school in the afternoon, and find my stepmother had had another go at a sponge, and was pretty down in the mouth, because as usual, it had sunk in the middle. As much as we were allowed to do, I fell on these failures, and revelled in the sunken, soggy, sweet middle – the best part of the cake, I thought. Sadly, years later, I discovered that my stepmother thought I was sending her up when I enthused about how delicious it was.
A few years later, living in Malaya, she was rescued from the kitchen by an amah who certainly didn’t bake cakes. Instead, like every other amah, she delivered a tea tray with rich tea biscuits and tiny Malayan bananas to the bedroom every day at four o’clock, to wake the dozing memsahibs from their afternoon rest in the tropical heat. With the pressure to produce the perfect sponge lifted from her shoulders, my stepmother began to be more interested in cake, and one holiday I came home from boarding school and was invited to experiment with making something called a boiled fruit cake – no creaming and beating, just a bit of mixing and boiling before baking.
So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.
The cake was simply a mix of all the ingredients and then baked. It wasn’t just soggy and sweet in the middle, it was soggy and sweet all through – just my sort of cake.
When I had my own kitchen, my ambition to eat cake was permanently at war with my determination never to get bogged down with the hard labour of creaming and beating that seemed to be involved in making a cake. But I found a temporary solution in the first months of my marriage – a cake that didn’t even have to be cooked – it was made from mostly crushed biscuit crumbs, melted butter and chocolate and finished off in the fridge. It was even a success with an old school friend who’d mastered the whole baking thing, and could even do a crème brulee.
But the real break-through came when reading the old Manchester Guardian, as it was called back then. Highbrow though the women’s pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat cake. And hidden away one day in a sensible article on cakes – nothing frivolous, just egalitarian, down to earth, common sense advice – I found the answer to cake-making. Instead of creaming the butter, or beating it with the eggs or the sugar, all we had to do was MELT the butter and stir it in.
This simple technique I applied to chocolate cakes, lemon cakes, you- name- it cakes. It‘s carried me through a life-time of eating cake and I’ve never even considered making a Victoria sponge.
But now I have another triumphant addition to my cake making repertoire – just in time for Christmas too. The NZ genius known as Annabel Langbien, who invented the three ingredient scones I wrote about, has also invented the three ingredient Christmas cake. This of course, is meat and drink to me, though being the over-the top person I am, (if half is delicious – twice as much must be twice as delicious!) I did actually embellish this gloriously simple recipe.
1kg mixed dried fruit, 2½ cups (600ml) milk or almond milk, 2¾ cups self-raising flour , 1 tbsp sherry, rum or whiskey, to brush (optional)
icing sugar, to dust (optional)
Place dried fruit in a bowl, cover with milk and leave to soak overnight in the fridge.
The next day, preheat oven to 160°C and line a medium (23cm diameter) springform cake tin with baking paper.
Stir flour into fruit mixture until evenly combined and smooth into prepared tin. Bake until it is risen, set and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (check after about 1¼ hours and return to oven for a little longer if needed). Remove from oven and, while still hot, brush with sherry, rum or whisky, if using. Cool in the tin before turning out. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 3-4 weeks.
My embellishments included soaking the fruit in brandy and lapsang souchong cold tea, using a cup of almond meal and one and a half cups of flour…plus a cup of melted butter, cup of brown sugar and three beaten eggs…then I couldn’t resist adding a teasp of vanilla essence, plus two teasp mixed together of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice – and then a good table spoon of golden syrup… (still simple, No creaming beating etc – just all mixed together and utterly delicious).
I ‘m also thinking of going the whole hog when I unwrap it to eat, and layering on apricot jam to hold some marzipan, and icing on top of that. Otherwise I would arrange crystallised ginger on the top before baking.
I also cooked the cake very slowly, for far longer than Annabel suggests – wrapping the tin in layers of thick brown paper.
I wrote the first half of this blog on 5 June 2012… but thought I must share the updated version with this blindingly simple recipe for Christmas cake.
Food for thought
Thought control is the highest form of prayer. Therefore think only on good things, and righteous. Dwell not in negativity and darkness.
And even in those moments when things look bleak – especially in those moments – see only perfection, express only gratefulness, and then imagine only what manifestation of perfection you choose next.
In this formula is found tranquillity. In this process is found peace. In this awareness is found joy.
Donald Neale Walsch Conversations with God Book 3
36 responses to “Let them eat ( Christmas ) cake!”
‘So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.’ This brought back memories. My mother and I were still doing this in the 60s and 70s. And I, still to this day, have a habit of breaking eggs into a separate cup. Christmas Blessings to you.
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You too, Amanda! Old habits die hard, don’t they, I usually break the eggs separately too after all this time !
Christmas greetings to you too…
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Once you have cracked open a rotten egg, your displeasure keeps you wise forever!
Since I am a cake person I adored following your adventure in the land of baking cakes! Your recipe sounds yummy and so easy. Particularly before you started to add your personal touches. Which I agree should make the cake even better. I also like to use almond flour in place of part of regular flour. Oh, well, I could have an additional cake on my Xmas menu 🙂
Hello Evelyne, we have many of the same interests and pleasures don’t we! Hope the easy recipe works for you… as I get older I am always on the hunt for easy efficient ways of doing things !
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So agree! Simple things are the best, anyway:)
Sounds delicious Valerie. I have often lamented in recent years how much I love cake and pies. I can make both but can eat neither unless I make them out of grain free ingredients, so the almond meal instead of flour is very appealing! I would never be interested in making or eating Victoria sponge, give me the over-the-top stuff if I’m going to indulge!
Oh Ardys, lovely to hear from you… and I so agree with you about going for the over-the top stuff if I’m going to indulge… lashings of icing. cream etc etc
I use almond meal instead of flour a lot, especially in chocolate cakes and lemon cakes…
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What a production that was to make a cake there! And a three-ingredient cake? What’s not to like? Hope you’re having a great week, Valerie.
Hello Janet, good to hear from you… are you going to push the boat out and risk the three ingredient cake !!!!
Summer is here, sunshine, no rain, strawberries and asparagus, we’re preparing for an antipodean Christmas, but its;’ always an excuse too for the traditional things like That Cake, mince pies, brandy butter etc !!!
Hope your week is not too cold, love valerie
Not sure if I’ll try it or not, but it’s always good to have around. I can’t imagine having Christmas in summer, but I guess I’d get used to it. 🙂 But no matter the weather, tradition is always wonderful during the holidays. We’re looking forward to having our daughters home for a good amount of time and one of my sisters-in-law up for a few days.
Cold here, but I’m good with that and wishing for snow.
Love right back at you,
I’m a bit like your step-mother in the baking line….I can do most cooking to my satisfaction BUT have never succeeded in a presentable cake!! So as we were driving on a Sunday meander round the Kaipara today I suddenly decided I’d give one final go at a Christmas cake….and Lo….arrived home to find your brilliant easy one….ah there are no coincidences!!!
How hilarious, Angela, I love a good synchronicity!!!
Hope the easy cake works for you … if not – you can always numb your sorrows with another meander round the beautiful Kaipara !!!!
I felt for your stepmother in reading about her Victoria sponge attempts. While I decorated cakes for years my attempts at baking them from scratch were often epic failures. The Christmas cake sounds delicious.
Blessings and Shalom as the holidays approach,
I’m sure the icing hid your ‘epic failures’ with sweet glory !!!!
My attempts at icing are as rough and ready as the picture at the top of the blog !!!
Enjoy the holidays too….
I shuddered at the treatment of Marie’s son. I still must make cakes from the bottom….all gluten free…gradually over all the years I can now make a cake that is delicious…but oh those failures…even the chickens would not eat them.
What ungrateful chickens !!! I always love sweet cake failures !!!
I find using the almond flour instead of SR flour, means that gluten free needs are covered…
Be ‘bak sun’ as the notices on shop doors say !!!!
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I like the almond flour…almost a no fail and very rich and dense.
Thinking great thoughts and perfection is all very well, Valerie, until you realise the structures you clumsily built in the glasshouse aren’t up to taking the weight of your tomatoes.
All I can say Mark, is that you’re jolly lucky to have such a wonderful tomato harvest !!! I’ve got some seedlings which are struggling in our semi drought… and my vegetable garden is a total failure, with the leeks just straight pieces of green wood, and the peas and beans stunted and rebellious !
It’s the soil a friend tells me, but I am not into the science of nitrogen and ph levels etc etc…
Yet another of the widely known quotes that simply never happened, or happened in a different form. Once established, it is almost impossible to get them out of the public mind, which shows just how stupid the public mind is.
I’m so glad you turned the cake into an authentic Christmas one of the sort I expect by adding the brandy! With that ingredient, we find that they last quite happily, maturing nicely, for three months. Even in our climate.
I agree, Leslie, a Christmas cake without brandy is not worth eating… I feel the same about Christmas pudding, and as for brandy butter… is there anything as delicious! I can eat it by the spoonful !!!!
And yes, a mature fruit cake is worth planning for !
I fancy all of the above. Strangely enough, though, I don’t go for brandy as a tipple (except very occasionally a matured Cognac).
“First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out.”
This brought a smile. During the 50s, it was my job to get the weevils out of the rice for my mother. Now, if there is so much as a single weevil in the rice or flour, the supermarket gets a visit from the health authorities. LOL!
Hello Eric,,, another memory we share !
So civilisation has some advantages, especially weevil free rice and flour, and even a nice big fridge free from ants and cockroaches !!!
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There are so many stories that are wrapped up in the sweet deliciousness of the word – cake. I am looking for are long lost cake recipe that my mom had many years ago – gooey cake with chocolate sauce and marshmallows. Kitchens has been a source of fascination for me over the years, especially the iterations. We have come from huge kitchens to galley kitchens, and then back up again, but in a different way. There is a trend to eat out or bring home dinners from grocery stories that offer easy meals. Even so, kitchens are a hot-bed of creativity and a place of community. I do love stopping by…
Lovely to see your smiling picture Rebecca … I know what you mean about kitchens… mine is tiny at the moment, but somehow it doesn’t make any difference, – everything I want is there, so I don’t need the space !!!
I’ve tried the odd take- home dinner, but never bother any more… tasteless too often, though they have fifty more ingredients than I use – all with chemical names ! And frozen cooked fish I discovered comes from the chemical rich Mekong Delta, before being packed in Russia, and cooked in China, using batter with fifteen ingredients – again with mathematical formula names – instead of three- flour, water and egg!!! Then re-packed in Australia and sold here!!!
Home cooking was what kept us healthy in my youth !!!
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Alison Holst’s Cathedral Window Cake is a favourite and doesn’t need to be iced. If I do make a more traditional Christmas cake, using a recipe my mother got from a friend which is in imperial measurements, I ice it with brandy icing.
Brandy icing!!! I haven’t come across that, but love the idea of anything with brandy in, even though I don’t actually drink it !
Imperial measurements… I suppose that’s pounds and ounces, is it… the language of measuring I still use !!!
Lovely to hear from you Ele ….
Love the Marie Antoinette entre to this post, Valerie! I’m not really into cooking or baking but have a recipe book nontheless. I’m writing a novel just now and had to go back into the fifties for my character as a young woman, so I had some nice domestic kitchen images from your post! Cheers for now.
Oh Lynne, thank you for commenting on Marie Antoinette… I had supposed it was de trop since no-one else seemed to have noticed it !!!
Always good to hear from you, hope the inspiration flows for your novel…
I love a good cake recipe,thank you for this one. I love Victoria sponge too and I, too, was brought up to break each egg separately and still do!
But what I can’t get past is how disgracefully that little boy was treated, that made me weep.
Your posts are always so full of fascinating information. I have just enjoyed three in a row in an unusual peaceful start to my day, reading in bed with my morning cup of tea. Thank you. 🙂
Sally, so good to hear from you… I love the picture of you propped up in bed with your tea tray, browsing through your computer in- box !
Yes, I always weep buckets every time I read or write about that poor little boy, and have to make sure I never think of him as I go to bed, or I go to sleep miserable. I have a feeling that the French try to forget about him – and the Terror for that matter…
However, let us eat good cake baked by our own fair hands and I wish you a happy Christmas eating one of your delicious confections !!!!
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Yes, fate was very harsh with Marie Antoinette. But powerful monarchy can be a dangerous thing to get into, more in the Middle Ages than in her time. Whereas some intelligent women had a big influence on their kingly husbands, she doesn’t seem to have helped the judgment of her well-meaning but not exactly intelligent husband at all, being too caught up in court politics and no doubt with her children. There again, she was not a strong woman exerting powerful influence in the wrong direction, like Henrietta Maria (Charles I’s wife).
So true! Thank you for commenting, Simon…
I’d be interested to know what you thought of my latest blogs about post war Europe ( which is of course, my autobiography)