Volume 25, Number 148, December 2022/January 2023 My Motherís Christmas Cake by Norma Janzen
There was much pre-planning involved in making the Christmas cake. It had to start almost as early as spring thaw to be ready in time for the following December.
My mother and father always stopped their farm work, including milking cows by hand, at 10:30 a.m. to rest and enjoy a cup of coffee together. She, one mid-May morning said, "John, I think this is a good day to cut a tamarack for baking the fruitcake."
"Yep, I know," replied my father, slurping another gulp of java. "I was wondering when you were going to mention that." Mother always wanted a partially dried tamarack wood to fuel the cook stove because of its slow burning property, just right for her dark Christmas cake. The tree she was talking about was called a larch by the locals, but in Prince Edward Island, where she was from, it went by the name she used.
"I'll get it for you this week when I have time." Mother's frown and pursed lips prompted him to add, "I spotted one last summer when we were clearing underbrush up on the hill the other side of the road. Maybe I'll chop it down this afternoon."
Mother nodded, knowing that the tree would be leaning against the porch before milking time that evening. Cutting it into stove-lengths would follow in a few months' time.
Getting the ingredients for the cake was Mother's next concern. She had all the staple ingredients such as four hens and if they were worth their feed, they would provide her with some extra eggs as they'd done in summers past when she sold the surplus and earned enough to just cover the extra expenditure. It was always a gamble!
Come September when the tamarack or larch tree had been cut into stove lengths, my mother began the work of putting her pride and joy together. The laying hens over the spring and summer obliged her with the necessary eggs to sell, thereby providing the money to purchase the expensive ingredients. She quietly offered them a prayer of thanks.
After all her farm chores were completed for the day and her husband and seven children were either asleep or busy elsewhere, she sat at the kitchen table, battery radio on to CBC's Ford Theatre and by the fading daylight, she finely chopped one pound of candied fruit, one-quarter pound of walnuts and two ounces of ginger and placed them in a large mixing bowl. By this time Mother was almost working in the dark, so she left her work station to light an oil lamp and place it nearby.
Settled in her chair once more, she added one pound of raisins, one-half pound of dried currants, one-quarter pound of red candied cherries which she chopped coarsely, one-half cup of orange marmalade and one-quarter cup of lemon juice, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and one-quarter teaspoon almond extract. She grated two lemons finely before squeezing them to obtain the necessary one-quarter cup of lemon juice. Lastly she added one-quarter cup orange juice to the mix. Using a large wooden spoon she blended all of the ingredients and covered them with two dishtowels to let the flavours meld overnight.
She mixed the dry ingredients for the cake the following afternoon, a special time she set aside during her work schedule. With the kitchen to herself, free of interruptions or suggestions so she could concentrate, my mother found her largest bowl into which she double sifted the two cups of flour together with the cinnamon, nutmeg, mace and allspice. She used another bowl to cream butter, sugar and six eggs. Instead of adding the salt and baking powder to the dry ingredients, she, for reasons of her own, added them to the wet mixture.
With a firm grip on a large wooden spoon she blended the dry, creamed and fruit mixtures together. After she was satisfied the blending of the three was sufficient, she spooned the colourful mixture into two large brown paper-lined cake pans. They were placed in the previously lit stove's oven that was as close to 250 degrees as one could tell on the thermometer behind the oven's cracked glass door. As Mother busied herself with other household chores, the cakes baked for approximately four hours. After years of practice she was able to tell when the cakes were baked through; they shrunk from the edge of the pans.
She left the cakes to cool overnight in her secret hiding place in the woodshed next to the kitchen. In the morning, after the cows were milked and everyone was minding their own business elsewhere, Mother wrapped the cakes in cheese cloth and hid them in a large stoneware crock in the dirt cellar.
The special tasting took place one December Saturday night. By this time Mother had covered the cakes with a layer of marzipan and a skim of white icing. Everyone received a slice and slowly their heads nodded and their eyes closed as the joy of the delicious cake's moisture tantalized their taste buds.
"Well?" asked my mother in anticipation of their responses.
"It is as wonderful as always," replied my father. She beamed.
"It has a funny taste!" growled her uncle who lived with us at the time.
Mother exclaimed haughtily, "Whatever do you mean?"
"It tastes like more!" he laughed uproariously while trying to avoid his niece's slapping him with a dishtowel.