A recipe that evokes true, sweet flavour of Christmas
I may never make Granny's Christmas cake, but reading her recipe brings her back, four years after her death, writes Sarah Caden
In my kitchen, on the bookshelf with the cook books, I have a scrapbook. Into its plastic pockets I insert pages torn from magazines, recipes for things that I may or may not make. Every now and then, I do a cull. A good percentage of the recipes are aspirational; composed of ingredients I will never buy; too elaborate for anyone with a job and two children; or food for the person I'd like to be but am not. I throw the meals that will never happen in the bin and try to keep only those that will become part of the repertoire.
There is one recipe I have yet to make, though I have had it for 15 years now. In all the culls, I have never discarded it and I never will.
It's not on glossy magazine paper. It's on orange card that may have been part of a folder one time, cut unevenly into a sort-of A4 size. On one side thick strips of masking tape hold in place a card addressed to me by my married name, which I rarely use. The handwriting is that of my granny, Mary, spidery and a bit shaky with old age, but undeniably hers.
The orange card was folded in three, so that it was both the envelope and the letter. This still makes me smile, almost four years after her death in January 2013. Mary, Mary, quite contrary, never one for waste.
Densely filling the flip side of the card is Granny's handwritten recipe for Christmas cake. It is dated 2000, the first Christmas after we bought our first house. Clearly Granny reckoned I was properly grown-up now, married, installed in my own house - ready to take the Christmas cake baton.
The care taken kills me every time. The recipe is full of second-thoughts that must have occurred to her as she read back over it. Initially, for example, she forgot to suggest leaving the butter to soak in the whiskey overnight before you set to baking. And the underlined instruction to leave it in a "warm room" seems to be an after-after-thought.
Then there is the note in a margin about making a dent in the middle to stop the cake from cracking during baking, and, my favourite, the recommendation that you put your ear to the cake after five-and-a-half hours in the oven and "if there is a sizzling noise, give it another 20-30 minutes".
I can nearly see her writing it out. I can certainly see her deciding not to bother with conventional writing paper or an actual envelope, but instead crafting her own postage system out of light cardboard. Once, I had lots of bits of post from Granny on recycled envelopes, or cards she'd painted herself, or recipes she had transcribed and to which she had added her own twists and tweaks. I don't know where any of them have gone and I'm not sure why the Christmas cake recipe remains.
I suppose, though, that the other post was discarded or culled because I imagined she'd always be around and never imagined she'd become just part of my memories.
There are things you don't know when you're young; the things you take for granted as part of the architecture of your life, that you imagine will stay strong and secure and present for ever. You don't believe that your childhood and then youth will pass. That the stuff you do habitually as a child will come to an end and become the fabric of your memories.
When you're young, you believe that you have endless Christmases and that they will always be the same, populated by the same people, characterised by the same rituals.
You don't know that when some people go, you don't and can't replace them, and that just an absence and a memory remains. I was very lucky to have my granny until I reached the fine age of 40, so what I never knew about grief is that you don't miss people less as time goes by, you miss them more. Because they become buried further into your past and into your memories, instead of being real and living right in front of you. And it's then you start doing what the adults did when you were a child; reminding you of Christmases past, of how they were and who populated them.
My elder daughter, now eight, thinks that the Irish Yeast Company on College Green, is a funny-looking place. It wasn't quite as subsided and lopsided and antiquated when I went there every year with my granny, to buy tranches of candied peel in a rainbow of pastel colours for the Christmas cake. I knew I didn't much like the taste of it, but it looked so pretty, and while I didn't much like the finished Christmas cake, or the underlay of almond icing or even the snow-white carpet of royal icing, I loved helping Granny to make it. I can even conjure the smell, overlaid with the scent of the Superser, and the clutter of my granny's flat.
I tell my daughters about my granny, particularly if we bake. Every time I put a butter wrapper in the bin, I tell them that Granny would have kept that to grease a baking tray. They probably find it irritating, the way I repeat it, every time, but I want it burned on their brains, a memory I create for them as a fragment of a woman that meant so much to me but they barely remember.
I tell them about how she would let me stay in her bed after a sleepover, drinking Bovril from a tiny china cup, while she went out in the dark winter mornings to Mass in Harrington Street church.
I tell them about how she had a shop when I was small, and I would sit up on the ice-cream fridge and eat the first slice of the corned beef, because it was the only nice slice. And how, in retirement, she was a great knitter and later an enthusiastic painter and potter. How she made wine and sloe gin in her small flat off Mount Street, how she went through a phase of making cheese, with rennet sent up to her in the post from the Golden Vale. "What's rennet?" they ask, and I hope that it will be one of those weird words they remember, as I remember it from when I was their age.
The last time I saw my granny move was in the week before Christmas, 2012. My elder daughter was a little scared of unresponsive Granny Mary at this stage, but she was at a Christmas ballet. In her absence, that afternoon was an opportunity to visit with my younger daughter, also Mary, only two, and not afraid.
I sat by Granny's bed, where she lay, seeming to sleep. I held her silky-soft hand. I talked to her. I didn't know if she heard. I tried to contain my toddler in the room. I wondered what benefit there was to being there if Granny wasn't even aware. I wondered should we go. I felt bad about how the time dragged and how my mind ran to all the other things I should be doing.
"Mary! Sit up here and give Granny a kiss," I said, drawing my daughter up on to my knee. I repeated the urging a few times, and then, all of a sudden, Granny opened her eyes, sat forward and planted a big kiss on my little girl. Then, as suddenly as she had been alert and active, Granny was back on the pillow again, half-lying, half-sitting, eyes closed, apparently asleep. That was it. I never saw her move or give any indication of awareness of her environment again.
It was only this year, slow on the uptake, that I realised something.
My mildly admonishing, bossy-mammy instructions to my Mary had awoken something in my granny. She heard that tone and her own name, and she had thought that I was speaking to her. That certain way you speak to a small child had engaged her almost out-of-reach mind and she did what she was told. She was a little girl again, just for a moment.
The grandmother was the child. The grandchild was the mother. And around and around it goes.
I haven't ever made the Christmas cake; but maybe dried fruit will come back into favour. Maybe when my girls are older they will yearn for old-fashioned heavy fruit cakes, laced with whiskey and dense with butter. I will keep Granny's recipe for them, with her voice there in the afterthoughts written into the margins, the notes about the trick with the milk on the back of a spoon.
I never liked that cake, but I can taste it when I read Granny's recipe. And she's there, every Christmas, in every word of it.