The only way to recreate the taste of an Irish Christmas in America is to make it myself
My mother's Christmas cake was baked every year using a Theodora Fitzgibbon recipe cut from The Irish Times
Maeve Rafferty: ‘This year, I’m remaining in Pittsburgh for the entire holiday and there’s no way I can savour that taste of Christmas past unless I make it myself.’
I’ve been chewing over the dilemma, these past few weeks, of whether or not I should attempt to make mum’s Christmas cake this year. Early last December I paid a visit home and snuck a big hunk of it back in my case. This year, I’m remaining in Pittsburgh for the entire holiday and there’s no way I can savour that taste of Christmas past unless I make it myself.
When I say it’s mum’s, it’s also my granny’s, and more than likely her mum’s too, at least in terms of tips and techniques. It’s very much Theodora Fitzgibbon’s, long-time food writer for The Irish Times. Her authoritative face on the cut-out, grease-stained columns Mum dug out of the Christmas folder was a familiar presence in our house when I was growing up.
It’s my cake, too, because like my sisters I was recruited to help wash the fruit, beat the butter and sugar, fold in the flour, grate lemons, line the tins, turn the cake in the oven. I used to dread it, because of the panic that descended our house pre-Christmas, but usually I enjoyed it once I got going.
You would think with all this experience behind me, it would be an easy matter to whip up a cake in the consumer-paradise that is the US. Not so. My first and last attempt, to date, was three years ago. The recipe was received in snippets via text and hand-written notes from mum, the latter scanned and emailed by my sister. After many confusing forays into the Pittsburgh supermarkets, translation to American-English ensued.
For black treacle, insert molasses. For ground almonds, almond flour. For sultanas, insert golden raisins. Forget about currants; they don’t seem to exist in the States. To get mixed peel without alarming red and green bits, I had to boil up my own citrus peel and saturate it with sugar. The glycerin was the hardest. Essential for a lustrous royal icing, I eventually tracked it down in the skincare aisle of the pharmacy.
Another challenge was the maths. The cake tins in the department stores here in no way match my mum’s battered collection. I ended up using a few loaf tins I already had, to get something like the correct depth. The messing about with volumes of cylinders and scaling quantities of ingredients was almost enough to make me give up. I broke my kitchen scales in the process of weighing out the fruit - they were a poor-quality nod to the idea that some people in this country really do measure out in pounds and ounces rather than ‘cups’.
Who was I making it for? Me, primarily. Also for my husband, who might be the only American person to like Christmas cake. (It’s a cliché here to re-gift unwanted fruitcake over ‘the holiday’). That year, it could be said officially that it was for my in-laws, who tried it and were polite about it, but perhaps only because I’d carried the precious cargo on a plane from Pittsburgh to Massachusetts.
This year, there will be two of us on Christmas Day, though we may join forces with our neighbours. It’s unclear whether their daughters, aged five and two, will relish the brandy-soaked goodness of an Irish Christmas cake. The idea of going for sushi was mooted - cover your ears, Mum! - so the traditions might be cast out altogether.
One of the neighbours in question is a food photographer, and last week we attended the launch of a recipe book she’d worked on. It was at this event that I gained surprising insight into my cake-making dilemma. Pittsburgh-based chef, Chris Fennimore, gave a short presentation in which he described the incentive for writing the book. He wanted to put together a collection of feel-good, easy-to-make recipes handed down through the generations of his own family and that of his co-author’s. “This food is meant for sharing,” he said. “You don’t count its nourishment in calories.”
I had my epiphany right there. He’s telling me to make the Christmas cake, I said to myself. To share it and convert all the Americans who think they don’t like it. It’s not exactly a simple recipe and I’ll need to buy new scales, and it’s late. I should have had my fruit washed and my peel made already. I could be icing the cakes on Christmas morning, but I’m no stranger to that. It’ll be worth it.
I’m ashamed to say I’ve managed to procrastinate ever since my internal commitment was made. The only progress has been in recruiting my husband to help. He has a better head for maths than me, has a vested interest in the project and is a baker by trade. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on my apprentice to make sure its done the right way - the way of Theodora Fitzgibbon, and my mum.