When I was growing up in a small town in the north County Dublin, around the beginning of December the local grocery shop began to display Christmas cakes from the city's bakeries. To us children, it was always a wondrous sight. Cakes, anywhere from 8 to 12 inches in diameter, elaborately iced and decorated, resplendent with tinsel and ribboned bands, were arrayed in rows in the window, their tops angled toward us for our admiration.
We peered through the gathering December darkness and the condensation on the glass to pick our favorites. Yet the idea of having a bought cake for Christmas was anathema to us. Nothing could replace the richness and taste of our own homemade version, we believed, and nothing could deprive us of the fun of the making it.
The Christmas cake, after all, was the centerpiece of our holiday entertaining. It was to feed friends and family who came to the house throughout the Christmas season. A small finger of dark, rich fruitcake with its several icings, served with a cup of tea or a glass of whiskey, symbolized the hospitality of the house and the sharing of friendship.
In our family's traditions, the first Sunday in December was set aside for cake making. The activity began when my mother sat down and, in her beautiful copperplate wrote the list of needed supplies in the account book we kept with the local grocer.
Our house was in the main street, directly opposite Hogan Bros., "Purveyors of Fine Groceries," as the elegant hand lettering over the door proclaimed. The other half of the Hogan establishment was a public house, and over that door was painted "Licensed to sell Tobacco, Wine and Spirits."
Inside, Hogan's shop was dark and mysterious and full of the smells of fresh bread, loose tea and baked ham. There were high, mahogany counters on either side of the entrance, with a cashier's booth on the left where Mr. Hickey sat on a tall stool, collected the money and penned the accounts in large blue ledgers.
Mrs. Hogan, a small, birdlike lady with spectacles on the tip of her nose, was usually in the shop, one eye on the assistants, and the other on any activity that might be happening in the street outside.
Armed with a big shopping bag, my sister or I would present the grocery book to one of the assistants, who would assemble the ingredients on the counter, carefully writing in the amount to be charged: muscat raisins and sultanas, almonds and a little tin of allspice, flour and sugar in brown paper bags, glace'ed cherries and mixed candied peel. The eggs would be laid carefully on top, cushioned by the other supplies. In the winter the hens laid less frequently and eggs were scarce and expensive. Mrs. Hogan would admonish us to be careful, and have no "trick acting," or we'd break the eggs.
Since the list included spirits, the assistant would duck through an adjoining door into the pub (where we children couldn't go because Mrs. Hogan didn't approve of children in pubs) and come back with a small bottle containing the mixed sherry and rum, and a bottle of Guinness's stout.
On Saturday night we would sit around the kitchen table and clean the dried fruit. Muscat raisins had to be seeded, and smaller fingers made that a job for the children. The almonds would be boiled for a few minutes and, when they were cool enough to handle, we would slip them out of their brown skins and lay them to dry on towels. Currants were topped and stems removed.
My mother would keep a keen eye on the proceedings to make sure that we weren't missing any wayward stems and that we didn't eat too many raisins. "They're all weighed," she'd say, "you'll throw off the cake if there's not enough fruit."
On Sunday, my mother's spinster sister, Rosaleen, would take charge of the actual making of the cake. Auntie Rosaleen loved us children dearly but corrected us constantly. On this day, however, we were an intent and obedient audience, kneeling on a bench at the kitchen table, as she creamed the butter and sugar until it was smooth as silk, then carefully added each precious egg, breaking it first into a cup to make sure it wasn't "off," which would ruin the cake, then beating and beating with the big wooden spoon until it was thoroughly blended.
When all the ingredients were added and the stiff, rum-and-spice smelling mixture was ready, we got to make our Christmas wishes. Holding the wooden spoon and stirring hard, three times to the left and three times to the right, we would wish our secret wishes, believing that all that goodness in the cake couldn't fail to bring us luck as well as pleasure.
The cake was placed in the oven with a prayer to St. Martha -- patron saint of cooks -- to ensure its success, and we were shooed out of the kitchen to spend what was left of afternoon anywhere but there.
As the evening wore on the rich smell of the cake would permeate the house. It's a smell as deep as the shine of a polished piece of walnut, and without equivalent. When it finally came out of the oven, long after we'd gone to bed, the remaining spirits were poured over the top and would sizzle as they were quickly absorbed.
The cake was put away to cure for several weeks until our older cousin, Maisie Comerford, could come down from the city to ice it for us. Maisie would let us help her spread the icing over the cake and create little villages on top, grouping a few miniature houses and a little church, planting a snow-covered pine tree nearby and making a pond from a tiny piece of broken mirror. We'd fluff the icing with a fork to resemble the snow, but smooth it out along the bottom third of the cake so Maisie could write, in red-tinted letters, "Happy Christmas" and the numbers of the year, highlighted with silver balls. When the icing hardened, we would tie on a wide red ribbon for the final flourish.
Late on Christmas evening, when the festivities had quieted, the cake would be cut with great ceremony. Thanks would be given for the year past and hopes expressed for the year to come. A small finger of it was served with tea, and the aunts and the uncles and my mother and father would all pronounce on the texture and the taste and whether it was as good as the last year's. I can't remember a year when it wasn't.
NELLIE HOPPER MULLIN'S CHRISTMAS CAKE (80 servings)
3/4 pound (3 sticks) butter or margarine
12 ounces dark brown sugar
1 pound all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tablespoons molasses
6 ounces spirits -- mixture of rum and whiskey or sherry
1 pound sultanas (white raisins)
12 ounces raisins
8 ounces currants
2 ounces glace'ed cherries, halved
4 ounces chopped almonds
6 ounces mixed candied peel, chopped finely
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon baking powder
Line bottom of a 10-inch springform baking tin with brown paper. Cut a length of wax paper to go around the inside of the tin, cutting one side with 1/2-inch slashes at 2-inch intervals so it will lie flat on the bottom. Then cut a round of wax paper and lay it on the bottom. Grease the wax paper on bottom and sides. Cut a length of brown paper 2 inches deeper than the tin and tie it with string around the outside.
Cream butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Add each beaten egg separately, beating well after each until mixture is fairly stiff and uniform. (If mixture begins to separate, add a little flour and continue.) Stir in sifted flour. Add molasses and half the mixed spirits. Mix in all fruits and nuts thoroughly. Lastly, add allspice and baking powder and mix well.
Put mixture into tin and with the back of a wooden spoon make a slight concavity in the center. (This is to compensate for the normal higher center of a baked cake and make it flatter for icing.)
Bake for 45 minutes at 325 degrees. Lower oven to 275 degrees and bake for 5 1/2 to 6 hours. Don't open oven until cake is half-baked and if top is browning too much put a sheet of greased wax paper on top. Cake is cooked when a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
When cake is done, take out of oven and pour remaining spirits over. Cool before removing sides of pan. Remove wax paper and store in air-tight container in cool place until ready to ice.
ALMOND PASTE ICING (Enough for one cake, serving 80)
8 ounces finely ground almonds
4 ounces superfine granulated sugar
4 ounces confectioners' sugar
1 small egg
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange juice
4 drops almond essence
1 teaspoon rum, whiskey or sherry
1 egg white, slightly beaten, for binding almond icing to cake
Sieve almonds and sugars into bowl and add well-beaten egg and flavorings. Knead until smooth on a board dusted with confectioners' sugar and roll out to 1/4-inch thickness. Brush cake with beaten egg white and lift almond icing and center it on top of the cake. It will probably be necessary to cut and piece the icing on the cake itself, but it can be manipulated easily. Give the top a light roll with a rolling pin to make the surface even for the royal icing. Allow to dry for several hours before continuing.
ROYAL ICING (Enough for 1 cake, serving 80)
3 large egg whites
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 to 3 drops glycerin (this is optional, but it helps keep the icing from becoming brittle)
1 1/2 pounds confectioners' sugar
Beat egg whites in large clean bowl until they have lost their glutenous texture. Add lemon juice and glycerin. Sift in confectioners' sugar and beat well until icing is fairly stiff and smooth and pure white. You may need slightly more or less sugar depending on the size of the egg whites.
Stand the almond-iced cake on a pretty cake board or on a flat plate or platter you won't mind having out of commission for as long as the cake lasts. Place it on an upturned box or cake tin to make it easier to ice.
Dampen a tea towel and keep it over the bowl of icing while you are working on the cake so it won't begin to harden.
Pile three-quarters of the icing onto the top of the cake and, with a palette knife, spread it quickly and evenly over the top and the sides, making the top as flat as possible and the sides as straight as possible. Dip the palette knife in hot water, shaking off excess (or icing will become watery and difficult to work), and smooth the icing well all over.
From here on, use your imagination and skill to decorate the cake. Fill a pastry bag with icing and using various shaped tips pipe a decorative border around the bottom of the cake and around the outer edge. Fluff half of the top surface with a fork and create your own winter scene using tiny ornaments available in cake decorating stores.
Tint remaining icing with a few drops of red food coloring, place in pastry bag and with a steady hand, write your own message on the cake.
When icing has hardened, wrap a 3-inch band of red or green ribbon around the cake, put it in an airtight container and put away until Christmas Day.
Servings: Depends on size. Traditionally a quarter of the cake is cut out first, then sliced in 1/2-inch thick slices that in turn are cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch fingers. This is a rich, filling cake, so small servings are in order. It keeps well for months if kept airtight and cool.
Per serving of cake with both icings: 196 calories, 3 gm protein, 31 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 33 mg cholesterol, 51 mg sodium.
Anne Mullin Burnham is Special Projects Director of the Pittsburgh-based International Poetry Forum and has already baked her cake for this Christmas.