My mother's recipe book
The recipe appears in my mother’s handwriting in a hardback, quarto book with ruled, multi-coloured pages. On the cover is a rustic-looking drawing including a ham, a cake, a bowl of potatoes, a jelly, a tureen with a lid, and four pink fish on a plate surrounded on each side by black squiggles which look vaguely like pubic hair. I think I can remember my mother writing out the recipe, and so I must have been at least four or five, which would make her twenty-five or twenty-six. It comes between Chocolate Cake and Welsh Cakes in the book. The paper is pink. The recipe goes over a double-page which is incomparably the most stained, smeared and spotted in the whole collection. It is entitled, ‘Liz’s fruit cake. 8-inch cake tin’. The only Liz that my mother knew used to live in a neighbouring street and was a Spanish teacher at the school that I would eventually attend, about 8 years after the recipe was transcribed. We only ever referred to it as Christmas cake, even when we ate it, with a mug of tea and a piece of cheese, at other times of year.
These are the ingredients:
10 oz plain flour
8 oz butter
7 oz Demerara sugar
4 large eggs
2 oz chopped almonds
4 oz glacé cherries
1½ lb mixed fruit
1 tablespoon black treacle
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp mixed spice
¼ bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
1 grated zest of orange
Brandy, sherry, rum etc as required.
This recipe requires the biggest mixing-bowl you have got. The method is first to beat the butter, sugar and rind. My mother added instructions for her recently-acquired electric hand-blender. Increase speed to 2 and add the treacle. Add the eggs, one at a time. Return speed to minimum, and tip in the flour, salt, spices and soda. The next words are ‘then fruit and nuts. Switch off as soon as incorporated.’ I know from experience that this cannot be right. There is so much dried fruit in this recipe that you can only incorporate it by folding it in with a large metal spoon. We are halfway down the second of the two pages by now, and should already have started pre-heating the oven and preparing the cake tin.
The tin, as it says at the very end of the recipe (in pencil rather than the black biro used for the rest of it) must be lined with three layers of tall greaseproof paper (preferably almost touching the ceiling of the oven). And of course it must be liberally greased.
The cake cooks at gas mark 2 for one hour, followed by gas mark 1 for two-and-a-quarter hours, after which you don’t necessarily take it straight out, but you start testing it with a skewer.
When it has finally come out of the oven and been allowed to cool, and the tin and the three layers of greaseproof paper have been carefully removed, the cake is definitely not ready for eating. You place it on two layers of aluminium foil, pour sherry or brandy or rum over it, and then wrap it up. You repeat this procedure several times until the required consistency and degree of moistness has been achieved. The cake is then ready to eat, but this process takes weeks.
My oven is not a gas oven: it is an electric, fan oven. I have written 140 ºC next to ‘gas mark 2’ and 125 ºC next to ‘gas mark 1’. I stopped to consider this action for a long time before I put pen to paper: it seemed at first like it might be an act of vandalism or forgery.
If you want to cook this recipe as my mother used to, then you need a kitchen with doors that you can shut to exclude every-one else in the house, and preferably one that you have occupied for several years. You will need a portable radio permanently tuned to BBC Radio 4, a packet of Rothmans cigarettes, and a glass of cooking sherry (for drinking rather than cooking).
Cook. Smoke. Drink. Shout at the narrator on Radio 4 as often and as loudly as possible. Attack (after picking up the nearest suitable weapon) any-one who tries to enter the kitchen. Upon finishing, emerge in order to lie down on the sofa in front of the TV, and complain at length about having had to ‘slave over a hot stove’.