Monday, November 30, 2009

A Traditional Christmas Cake Recipe


In today's busy world I think we have had to sacrificed tradition in favor of ready made convenience. It's so simple when the grocery store has everything you need for a holiday on a ready made platter. But that feels so empty to me and many others. Instead many of us at this time of year will pull out favorite family recipes that we make each year that are special to our family and connect us to generations past.

It's still different than times gone by and the Christmases that my mother and father remember from their childhood. My mother is 83 now, and was a child in England prior to WWII when times were very different. Her family had a separate room that was shut off from the children during the weeks preceding Christmas called Bluebeard's Room. This room was not opened up to the children until Christmas morning when for the first time the children would see the Christmas tree all lit up with presents spread below. The excitement of anticipation was hard to bear. During the night Santa would have delivered a Christmas stocking on her pillow filled with candy, small treasures and a tangerine in the toe. She always received one very special present from Santa. One year she remembers her special gift was a beautiful doll despite her mother having said she was too old for dolls that year and a twinkle in her father's eyes.

One way that I feel connected to my English heritage is though traditional English fare around the holidays. My mother always made a Christmas Cake that was decorated with tiny plastic reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh. I'm not going to share her recipe, though, as it makes too large a cake (it uses a dozen eggs) and, frankly, was sometimes a little undercooked.


Instead I'll share the recipe I used this year. The pictures in this post are my cake from last year (except for the one immediately above). I did this so that you see could see what the cake looks like when decorated, because I will not decorate my cake this year until the night before Christmas. The recipe I used last year came from Denise of The Knitting Den who was kind enough to share her friend's recipe. It made a wonderful cake, but was a little vague on instructions and ingredients so this year I searched and found a very similar recipe here, that I've slightly modified and/or clarified to incorporate aspects of Denise's recipe.

Recipe for A Traditional English Christmas Cake
One 8 inch (20 cm) round or 7 inch (18 cm) square cake pan. Pan should be 3 inches deep. If you don't have a cake pan in this size, the link above to the original recipe gives the recipe for a variety of different sized pans.

Preheat Oven: 300 F (150 C) Approximate cooking time 2.5 hours

Ingredients (ALL ingredients are BY WEIGHT):
12 oz. Currants (or 10 oz. currants and 2 oz. dried figs)
5 oz. Sultanas (i.e. golden raisins)
5 oz. Raisins
2 oz. mixed chopped peel (i.e. lemon and orange)
3 oz. glazed Cherries (washed and cut in half)
6 oz. Butter
6 oz. Dark brown soft sugar (I like to use organic brown sugar with a rich molassas flavor)
3 eggs
1 tablespoon Molasses or black treacle
7 oz. All Purpose (i.e. plain) flour
1 oz. Almond flour or Ground almonds
1 tsp. All Spice
1/4 tsp. nutmeg (optional)

Additional Ingredients:
Brandy (I use a 750 ML bottle because I enjoy a strong brandy flavor to my cake)
Apricot Jam
Marzipan (I use 2 of the 7 oz. tubes - 1 on top and 1 for the sides)

Royal Icing Ingredients:
powered sugar 1 lb. (sifted)
3 egg whites
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Ribbon and Ornaments for decorating
Wax Paper (to line cake pan)

Steps:

1. Begin by soaking dried fruit and mixed peel overnight in Brandy. I cover the fruit mixture with almost a full bottle of brandy because, if I haven't mentioned it yet, I enjoy a strong brandy flavor to my cake. Almost all of it will be absorbed by morning. Drain off excess prior to using.

2. Prepare cake pan. Trace a liner in wax paper by using your cake pan as a template. Cut out forms to fit bottom of pan and strips to line sides. Use butter to moisten pan which will hold the wax paper in place. Set baking pan aside while you prepare your cake mix.

3. Soften butter prior to using. Measure out all ingredients ahead and have ready to combine as needed. Eggs should be at room temperature.

4. Beat butter, sugar and molasses until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. A small amount of your flour may be added at this stage to prevent curdling.

5. Remove mixture from mixer. Add all purpose flour and ground almonds (alternately) and stir by hand with a wooden spoon. When mixture is well combined stir in dried fruit (drained).

6. Spoon cake mix into prepared cake pan and bake approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Because I have an oven that runs hot, I only needed to bake mine for 2 hours and 30 minutes. The cake is done when tester comes away clean.

7. Cool your cake completely in cake pan sitting on a wire rack or your stove top.  When cake is completely cool poke holes in the top and drizzle with a small amount of brandy.  Then wrap cake in cheesecloth and store in an airtight cake tin.

8.  Feeding your cake.  You will need to "feed" your cake brandy periodically during the maturing phase. It should be clear by now that I like a strong brandy flavor to my cake.  Remove the cheesecloth and drizzle with approx. 1 tablespoon brandy and reapply the cheesecloth.  Feed your cake brandy once a week by adding approx. 1 tablespoon brandy until ready to ice and decorate.  If, however, you don't like a strong brandy flavor (and bear in mind the cake already has lots of brandy in the fruit) you can periodically add a couple of apple slices to the cake tin to keep the cake fresh, but remove them after a day so that they don't go moldy.  I actually have begun doing this the past few years instead of adding so much brandy and actually like it better.

9. Allow cake to mature for several weeks. Decorate the day ahead of serving.

DECORATING YOUR CAKE:

Begin by applying a generous layer of apricot jam to the surface areas that you will be applying marzipan.  Then roll out your marzipan (a flat disk for the top and strips to apply to the sides).  Press the marzipan into the jam which should help it to stick.  Next prepare your icing. N.B. Do not prepare your icing until you are ready to decorate your cake (i.e. gather any ribbon and/or ornaments that you need) as the icing will quickly dry into a hard surface.

PREPARE ROYAL ICING:

Royal Icing:

Whip egg whites until creamy. Add powdered sugar and lemon juice and whip until soft peaks form. Quickly ice cake and immediately decorate before the icing sets (which happens very quickly).

ALL FINISHED:

Step back and admire your creation! Remember, if all fails and your cake is not "all that" then just smoother it in more brandy, light it on fire, and serve with a side of custard and call it a Christmas Pudding! If it is a success (and I'm sure it will be) then enjoy it on cold afternoons with a cup of tea or a glass of sherry.


Of course, wearing an appropriately saucy apron while doing your holiday baking does help put one in the proper mood! As will listening to cheery holiday music. My favorite holiday CD is Martina McBride's White Christmas which was recommended by the lovely Renee of Renee Knits too last year. Thank you Renee, I love listening to this CD!

I know that not everyone enjoys Christmas Cake, but there is no need to stick your tongue out and go ewww. Thank you Puff, that's quite enough. If you are like Mr Puffy who does not enjoy the flavors of brandy and dried fruits then it is probably not for you either. Instead, you might prefer these holiday cookie recipes shared in years past: Old Fashioned Gingerbread Men; Walnut Cookies; and Almond Crescents.

Until next time, be well, love well, and happy holiday baking! Up next are some quick knits and other last minute Christmas gift ideas!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Twilight Inspired Mittens

Warm and stylish, these are my Twilight inspired mittens!



I know some of you are perplexed why I knit so many warm items when, after all, I live in sunny Southern California. But it does get cold here! Freezing cold (not literally of course) but pretty darn cold. And this Fall it has been particularly cool..... which is why I am so delighted to have my Twilight mittens!



Has anyone else had an unusually cool Fall? Now don't laugh at this. As I get ready for bed, I sometimes listen to Coast to Coast, a radio program that airs during the late hours. It discusses UFO sightings, conspiracy theories, ghost stories, and new scientific discoveries. It is all utter twaddle, of course. And yet. Around about midnight, when I'm very sleepy, it all starts to make sense. For example, could the diminishing solar flares be having a cooling impact on earth's temperature? Maybe. It is cooler this Fall, at least here in Southern California. Not that I don't find pollution plenty worrisome too, because I do. I'm just wondering if maybe there aren't additional and perhaps stronger factors having an impact on earth's temperature.



Whatever the reason, it is a cooler this Fall and I'm happy to have these cozy mittens! The pattern is Bella's Mittens and this pattern was inspired by the mittens worn by Bella in the movie Twilight. I have to confess, I have not read the book or seen the movie. But I am a huge fan of Subliminal Rabbit, the clever knitter who designed these mittens, so I had to have a pair. Plus, some of my favorite on-line knitters have knit these and it's fun when everyone is wearing the same hand knits! Check out Bella's Mittens knit by: The Yarniad; At Home Mommy Knits; SweetP Knits; and a whole collection at Bella's Mittens Flickr Group. For those of you who haven't the time to knit yourself a pair you can buy Bella's Mittens directly from Ruth Cross who sells the original Bella's Mittens (as seen in the movie) as well as a variety of other hand knits.



Particulars: Bella's Mittens ~ free pattern ~ courtesy of Subliminal Rabbit! This is a very easy to follow pattern and I can't say enough good things about it. It's fun to knit, well constructed, and in a snap you will have mittens sure to delight your Twilight fans! My only modification was to reduce the needle size from US 8 to US7 as I prefer mittens knit at a tight gauge. I also knit these on doubled pointed needles rather than magic loop as I tend to achieve a tighter knit on double pointed needles. This pattern is currently featured in a UK craft magazine and has spawned many accessory knits (hats and scarfs) which you can read more about here.



The yarn I used was a gift from DizzyDragonflies.etsy who is better known as Vicky at Knitting Dragonflies. I stranded the yarn with GGH's Soft-Kid to achieve gauge (soft-kid is a yarn similar to Rowan's Kidsilk Haze). Vicky's yarn is lovely and soft as well as beautiful, as she has a talent for color work. She calls this colorway Fall Foliage and she gave it to Mr Puffy and me to remind us of Fall in Indiana (which was our home for ten years). It is a very special gift and I'll treasure these mittens always. Thank you Vicki, and watch your mailbox as a little thank you is heading your way.



Mr Puffy Update:
Last week Mr Puffy and I had a nice restorative visit with my parents in Santa Barbara. We took long walks, relaxed in front of the fire, and drank endless cups of tea! Mr Puffy loves it when we visit because he is spoiled and he gets to wander freely in my mother's garden which is enclosed and safe to do so, unlike at home where he is always supervised and on a leash when outside. At times I don't think he wants to leave! I can't blame him, I'm never ready to leave either.



Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone and, until next time, be well, love well, and happy knitting! P.S. Next time I'm going to share a recipe for a traditional English Christmas Fruitcake to kick off the Christmas season and I'm really looking forward to seeing all of the holiday preparations taking place in blog land!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Colonial Scarf

I love the Colonial period of United State's history. It was a time of great hardship but also a time of extraordinary events for our country. I also related to the puritan philosophy of that time and the simplicity of ideas and values. Or so it seems until you look closely. I suppose every generation faces their own troubles and political difficulties.



In any event, this simple scarf reminds me of Colonial America and I couldn't resist knitting it in time for Thanksgiving.


My interest in the colonial period was recently reinvigorated when I watched a couple of videos about that period. If you are interested in this period, you might also enjoy watching them. One was John Adams (an HBO miniseries) and other was a movie The Crossing about George Washington's surprise attack over the icy Delaware with the future of our country in the balance. Both were very strong men who knew a thing or two about facing opposition and difficult odds.

A blogging friend, Tracy of Pink Purl recently featured this post reviewing the book My Dearest Friend, Abigail and John Adams, which is a closer view of this extraordinary couple.

Particulars: Cinnamon Grace (free scarf pattern courtesy of Knitworks by Katie Harris); 3.5 skeins Blue Sky Alpacas - Melange; US 3 needles - circular 40 inch; modifications: none. The pattern states this should be 72 inches long. Mine is a 46 inch crescent shape. I washed but did not stretch or block this as I think some of the flounce might be lost if you do that. Or, perhaps mine turned out so much shorter than 72 inches cuz I was doing something wrong. Who knows. I am happy with the length, in any event.



Sorry for this short and rather disjunct post. I'm tired and feel as though I have worked a thousand hours these past few weeks. Wanted you to see my home office (in the upper corner of the above picture) where I unravel complex accounting frauds. I'm afraid I'm not very tidy, but I know where everything is. I'm currently in the middle of a large case that is in full swing with pretrial filings and discovery work.

But, since the holidays are coming whether we are ready or not, here's a nice recipe (picture from last year) that is a favorite of mine.

Holiday Salad Recipe ~ Mixed Greens with Oranges, Cranberries and Pecans

Keeping with a colonial theme, this is a rustic but tasty salad that compliments the flavors of the Fall harvest. It's a great dish to take along when meeting knitting friends for lunch or a large gathering of family. I mix the dressing ahead of time along with the pecans and then just pour it over the green salad just before serving. I hope that you will enjoy this salad as much as I do!


Ingredients:

6 Servings:

1 cup plus 3 Tablespoons orange juice
6 Tablespoons dried cranberries
3 1/2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon grated orange peel
6 cups mixed baby greens
3 oranges peeled and white pith removed, segmented
3/4 cup pecans, toasted

Directions:

1. Bring 1 cup orange juice to simmer in heavy small saucepan. Remove from heat. Mix in dried cranberries. Let stand until softened, about 30 minutes. Drain well and discard soaking juice.

2. Toast pecans for approximately 10 minutes in a low oven. Set aside to cool.

2. Whisk oil, vinegar, orange peal and remaining 3 Tablespoons orange juice in small bowl to blend. Mix in cranberries. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper (can be prepared 1 day ahead). Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving.

3. Place greens in large bowl. Toss with 2/3 of dressing. Add the orange and pecans. Serve remaining dressing on the side.

Mr Puffy Update



Busy yes. But not too busy to buy Mr Puffy a pumpkin. He continues to do well and be cheerful, bless his little heart. Until next time, be well love well and celebrate togetherness this holiday season!