Today I made Christmas cake for the first time. It’s actually sitting in the oven as I write, the scent of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and the slightly bitter tang of fruit sugars cooking curling through the house.
It’s something we’ve always had in my family, a seasonal treat that lasts well into April, the last leftovers sometimes pulled from the freezer as late as July. Usually, it’s my dad who makes the cake, a dense, fruity square, wrapped in a layer of almond marzipan icing and then lavished with brandy icing forked into little peaks to look like snow—never mind that, in New Zealand, Christmas is a summer affair.
But this year, I’m far from my father’s kitchen. And the UK’s second lock-down, combined with 4pm sunsets, mean I have more time on my hands in the evenings than I know what to do with.
This festive season, I’ll be entertaining my future mother-in-law for the first time. Some might consider this an unwise moment to make my first Christmas cake. I disagree. While I won’t go so far as to produce a Christmas pav, or replace the sacrosanct turkey with roast lamb and mint sauce; and while there will be no Boxing Day barbecue on the beach, I am determined to ensure that at least one piece of my family gets a place at the table.
The recipe belonged to my grandmother—it’s the one she used to bake for my father and his three siblings when they were growing up, too. Hand-written on a yellowing scrap of paper, dotted with flecks of batter from Christmases past, it is titled in fading letters, “KAPI-MANA CHRISTMAS CAKE”.
At first, I thought this was an obscure reference to the high school where my grandfather once taught Geography. But when I asked my dad, he informed me that it was, in fact, the title of the free newspaper circular that was delivered each Tuesday to his childhood home – and from whence the recipe had come. Not quite the historic family heirloom I had led myself to believe. As it turns out, the handwriting is not, in fact, my grandmother’s, but rather a blocky script that belongs to my dad’s high school girlfriend. Another blow to the romanticised version of the story in my head.
I don’t have the original copy of the copy of the original clipping—I have digital a photograph of it, which I had to dig out from an email Dad sent me back in 2014. I’ve long aspired to make this cake, but the kilograms of dried fruit involved, not to mention the four-hour baking time, have always stopped me getting further than reading through the recipe for the fourth, fifth, sixth time. But not this year. 2020 hasn’t been a year for much, but I have decided that it will be the Year of the Christmas Cake.
My grandmother died in July 2011. She had a heart-attack in a supermarket aisle, the morning after a party she hosted to drink a batch of limoncello she had just finished making. She was 74.
She was our matriarch, the staunch, proud, fierce, life of the party. She raised four children on her own and drank port from a flagon. She played imaginary games with my brother and I for hours on end—she would be the haughty queen; I her prisoner, forced begrudgingly (at my own request) to fan her with leaves from the garden; my brother her son, the prince, who rescued me from my enslavement. She planned her own funeral well in advance (just in case), right down to the chess-piece-shaped headstone—the queen.
I worshipped her.
I find now, though, that she is fading from my memory. Some things remain clear—the feel of the soft, thin skin of her cheeks, the backs of her bony hands. Her ardent love for chunky jewellery and bold prints. The smell of her perfume—Coco by Coco Chanel. I smelled it, once, on a customer at the public library where I worked, and was barely able to control my tears.
I fear the way things slip from my mind; like leaves dropped into a fast-flowing stream they are carried away, out of my grasp. Will the day come when even those small things I hold onto have, without me noticing, drifted away along the currents of time?
When I lived in Wellington, the place where she lived for much of her adult life, and which came to mean as much to me as it had to her, I was constantly confronted with inescapable reminders of her absence—or rather, her presence. Clark’s Cafe, over the library, where she used to take me on the bus for a babyccino (or a fluffy, as we call them in New Zealand) and a sweet treat. The old Kirkcaldie and Stains department store, with its old-fashioned green awnings and curated shop windows where she loved to shop. Once, on a walk through the suburb of Wadestown with a friend, I stumbled across her old house and snuck down the side of the house to peer through the window at the living room and the back garden beyond. A high chair now took pride of place.
But here, now, on the other side of the world, and with few prospects of returning home soon, I must find new ways to remember her. Old letters that she sent me once, for a school project. The jewellery she left me when she died.
The cake has come out of the oven, now, and I have poured a few liberal glugs of brandy over it (a technical term, according to Dad).
A toast to absent friends; she would approve.