'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 24 December 2010

On Christmas with KBR's Tania McCartney

Despite a complete and utter addiction to the written word, my finest Christmas memories are not about books. They are about cake.

This morning I slid a large glass bowl from the refrigerator. It was brimming with dried fruit - golden sultanas, currants, raisins, cranberries and candied peel - shiny with cherry brandy. I lifted off the wrap, stuck my nose into the bowl and inhaled deeply. The aroma reached my toes.

I carefully laid the bowl on the kitchen bench where the sun had made it warm. I then slid a large spoon down the side of the glass bowl and lifted the gleaming fruit up and over, berries and fruit tumbling and rolling, drunken and fat and glistening sweetly like a bowl of aromatic jewels. This motion affects my heart.

I then put on Christmas music, tied on an apron, lit some incence and began talking to my mother. As I do each Christmas, I tell her how much I am missing her - still as much as ever, even after 20 years. Then I tell her how surprised I am that I will spend the rest of my life without her, as though I've only just been told this news. Then I tell her about the kids and my husband and I talk to her of my ups and downs and I ask her advice, as though she were sitting opposite me, tilting a warm cup of tea to her lips.

I put the kettle on and made a cup of tea and imagined see my mum smiling at me over the cup's rim. That's when my legs gave way and my head lowered until it reached my knees and I wept and wept and wept.

Then I stopped and wiped my eyes because I need to mix joy into my mum's Christmas cake, not sadness.

The fruit giggled at me in the bowl. It was drunk and happy. I eyed off the cherry brandy for a moment, then poured some more tea.

After tumbling the fruit some more, next was the flour, powdery and light, sifted with allspice, cinnamon and baking soda. I love to bang the side of the sifter with my hand and watch the flour poof in white clouds against the morning sun, before settling into dust.

In another bowl, the butter had been resting, silky and melty at the edges from the sun on the window pane. I plonked a cup of tightly packed brown sugar into the yellow sludge and whipped till creamy, then added eggs, one, two, three, four. Mix mix blend, all the time thinking of the end result, the tang on my tongue, the sweetness of the fruit, the roundness of the spice, the fragrance of the brandy - I can still taste my mother's Christmas cake, even decades later.

I can remember sneaking into the pantry when she wasn't looking, quietly prising open the big metal tin, breathing in the blend of fruity aromas and metal, feeling the tang in my nostrils, the release of saliva under my tongue. Then, peeking around the door to make sure no one was coming, I'd snaffle a small slice with the tiny knife she left in there. A small slice so she wouldn't know I'd been in there, this wee little cake-eating mouse. A small slice here and there, here and there until it completely evaporated.

That cake never lasted long.

It was a joy to me, that cake. It typified my mum and who she was. Always sunny, always warm, always rich and fragrant and smelling of face creams. Feeling that fruitcake taste spread across my tongue, even just remembering that taste, evokes such strong memories of my mother, coupled with the joy and wonder pervading the air around Christmas. The memories induced are so strong and so precious, it is like she is standing right next to me once again.

And so I have adopted this practise, of Christmas fruitcake making - a practise that only a real baker will understand, for there is something about baking that is primal, that takes us to our baser selves, to our heart.

My Christmas cakes are my mother's heart. And this is how a daughter can place so much importance in a Christmas cake.

It may be a small thing to others. It may be a simple thing to do - but for me, baking this cake is an unparalleled way to hold mum close to all of us. To honour her memory and in this way, keep her alive forever.

I'm off to stand in the kitchen, right near the warmth of the oven, and sniff the fragrant air.

Happy Christmas, Mum.