When in Rome, I must do as my compatriots do during the holidays
I'm looking at the Christmas cake recipe in my "Hamlyn All-Colour Cookery" book. The cover came off long ago. Now it's little more than a collection of pages, the favorite recipes stuck together with dried egg and sugar. A school friend in England gave the book to me when I moved to America as a teenager. I always felt homesick looking at the illustrations of flapjacks and Victoria sponge, Battenburg cake and Bakewell tart. The helpful hints suggest using glycerine in your icing, or making large quantities of buttercream and keeping it covered in the fridge. The recipe for Christmas cake urges preparation at least a month ahead "to give it time to mature."
Our family is in the Foreign Service and I've made this Christmas cake in Venezuela, Argentina, and Belgium. I've even made it in Russia. But now that I'm in Italy I'm wondering if I should bother. It calls for raisins, sultanas, and currants (they are all quite distinct, you know), almonds, glacé (candied) cherries, treacle (otherwise known as molasses), and brown sugar. You bake it in a tin lined with wax paper in a very cool oven for about four hours, then store it for a month. If you haven't forgotten it by Christmastime, it gets iced.
The icing is my favorite part, and very popular with children. "Royal icing," the book calls it - made from egg whites and confectioners' sugar, with a layer of marzipan underneath. I started to make the marzipan from scratch when we lived in Venezuela. I decorated the top of the cake with little carol singers in Victorian costume under a street lamp, and a tiny snowman.
I made an effort, raising my children all over the world, to prepare traditional English Christmas foods. Trifle was one of them. Also mince pies. I have occasionally tried to make pastry the way my grandmother made it - with her spirit, that is, for she never dealt in cups and tablespoons. She combined ingredients until the texture was right - until the little crumbs fell lightly from her fingertips.
So here we are in Italy and two of my children are in their late teens. Making a Christmas cake suddenly seems a little silly, especially since the stores are stacked with Italian cakes, all boxed up prettily.
On the other hand, my Irish friend Noreen, who also lives here, is making a Christmas cake and Christmas pudding - something I've never attempted! And she makes her mincemeat from scratch! "It's quite easy," she says. "But how do you say 'lard' in Italian?" (Strutto, for the record.)
Nothing could be less romantic than lard. It's a big white block of fat. Is it possible that Icould need lard more than freshly prepared pesto or olive paste? Must I have dried fruit rather than plump grapes, pomegranates, and lemons? Could my cake possibly compete with Italian Christmas specialties?
I'll also need treacle. Ben will have to bring some blackstrap molasses back from the American commissary today. I can find raisins and sultanas all right. Almonds, too. I can't find candied cherries on my first pass through the market, but I do get some figs. Will figs mix well in my cake?
I have a confession. While living in the United States last year I didn't have the time or patience for baking. I made mince pies with Pillsbury pie crusts, which I cut into small circles when no one was looking. Then I dolloped Crosse & Blackwell's mincemeat in the center. Everybody ate them up quite happily.
When we lived in Brussels I went to a Christmas party where they served the most delicious mince pies I had ever tasted - light and fluffy and perfectly shaped. Then I wandered into the kitchen to see my hostess carefully taking more mince pies out of a grocery store box and shoving the wrapping foil into the garbage.
And now I am surrounded by Italian fruitcakes. To bake or not to bake? That is the question. It isn't about the quality of my cake; it's about capturing an era gone by. When we're overseas, that seems to count for a lot. On holidays, we want our culture, and we particularly want its flavors. We want to partake of our own traditions. We are like Proust with his madeleine dipped in tea - calling up memories with flavor. My Christmas fruitcake takes me back to Copthall Gardens, outside London, where Aunty Clare drank tea from china cups and served her cakes on a lace tablecloth. I feel a fondness for that bygone era now - although I wasn't aware of enjoying it particularly at the time. Perhaps that's what holiday cooking is all about: How we want to remember things.
So I think I'll make my Christmas cake after all. I'm enjoying the thought of my children's faces when they see the little figurines on top: "Oh, look! Remember these? I forgot all about these!" They will pick off bits of icing and marzipan when no one is looking. And eventually even the cake will get eaten.