Wednesday, 9 January 2013

christmas eve dinner at babcia's and a recipe for christmas cake

the anatomy of a slice
it is christmas eve and we are gathered around babcia and daddy’s dining table in lahore. there is crisp linen on the table and the pretty china that is usually resident in the glass fronted cabinets has been laid out for dinner. our first course is always barszcz. this eastern european staple is a traditional polish first course for christmas eve dinner. babcia ladles the soup and passes it around the table. sometimes she will finish it with a squiggle of cream that is edged a vivid crimson where it meets the soup. warm dinner rolls in the shape of a knot are served on the side.

as soon as the soup plates are cleared daddy will dispatch himself to the kitchen as he always carves the chicken. meanwhile other elements of the main course will begin to arrive at the table. there are squares of firm white fish shallow fried in a crumb coat, red cabbage cooked with a tart green apple, cauliflower under a blanket of béchamel coloured in patches from the heat of the broiler, mizeria which is a salad of thinly sliced cucumber bound by a creamy yoghurt dressing and mashed potatoes.

i eat slowly, always in an attempt to reserve ample space for dessert but since it is christmas i fail miserably. i have a weakness for red cabbage and mizeria along with the chicken whose bronzed skin is salty and crisp. babcia is always the last to finish as she eats with deliberation and very slowly.

christmas eve is the only occasion when babcia and daddy will not urge the family around the table to finish eating everything at the table. despite being more than sated i am already looking forward to the reincarnation of the remains on christmas day. my favourite is a rarebit whose centre oozes molten cheddar and includes strips of left over roast chicken. the surface of the toast is bronzed with butter and the sear of babcia’s old sandwich maker. the mould of the sandwich maker is such that it merely crimps the edges to seal the filling. it is the lack of interference with the filling that is the charm of the rare bit. if there is plenty of left over roast babcia will make a white sauce folding the meat into it with a can of button mushrooms. this is always served on steamed rice.

the conclusion of christmas eve dinner begins with christmas pudding and ends on a succession of cakes and coffee. the pudding arrives at the table with a gravy jug of custard of variable consistency. i will never forget the fanfare of flambéed pudding, the brandy evaporating in a halo of blue dissolving into the surface. the pudding is served in thin wedges and finished with rafhan custard. the latter is the local version of bird’s and despite lacking much of a vanilla flavour it never fails to comfort.

along with the pudding come a procession of cakes, biscuits and another christmas tradition makoweic (poppy seed loaf). it is a brioche like roulade of bread with swirls of poppy seed paste and sultanas. in the last few years it has been replaced with an almond version as the poppy seeds in pakistan are gritty and sandy. in my girlhood days the christmas cake was baked by mrs cross. it would arrive at the table wrapped in layers of coloured and transparent cellophane. once un-wrapped it was stored in a large plastic cake-box. my love of christmas cake is unsurprising given that i have a weakness for vine fruits. it was not until i moved to england that i discovered that real fruit cake is a moist affair enriched with glace cherries and plenty of brandy. one can of course understand mrs cross’ rationing of glace cherries and brandy in the context of her fruit cake making in pakistan but last year all that changed as bhai (my brother) and mama made home-made christmas cake. it was a rich and drunken one fed with home-made liqueur. i know this because a rather bruised quarter of it arrived in london in bhai’s luggage.

christmas 2012 was my second christmas away from home and to soothe the inevitable home-sickness and ‘wishing i was with my family feeling’ i made christmas cake. christmas 2011 saw me make daddy’s traditional makowiec.

christmas cake is not so much difficult as it is time consuming. the process begins the night before the afternoon of baking and starts with the soaking of the fruit. the cake tin needs to be transformed into a paper walled fortress. this is done to protect the cake from drying on the inside and browning too quickly on top given its long baking time. it is a cake that demands an afternoon of your time, good music, perhaps even a glass of wine and a reliable oven. but it is a rewarding experience as it fills the house with the smell of christmas – all spice laced with citrus. after that there is the weekly ritual of feeding the cake. a week before christmas i made marzipan and on christmas eve i had to dash to waitrose for the final layer of royal icing to finish the cake. the recipe i have used is one that bhai and mama gave me. i used good old aunty delia’s instructions on preparing the cake tin as well as for the marzipan icing. i made my christmas cake on stir-up sunday which is traditionally associated with the making of christmas pudding. i figured it would give me plenty of time to feed the cake.

o has spent much of december complaining and competing for the attention received by the cake. but really aside from that one day of dedicated baking the cake was fed once every sunday in the run up to christmas. i made the marzipan on a night when he was out for christmas drinks draping the cake the same evening. it spent four days drying on the counter until christmas eve when i cloaked it with its final coat of royal white icing and decorated it with a ribbon. we had our first slice on christmas eve with port. all my fears about it being inedible or dry were unfounded as it was lovely. i have wrapped a quarter in greaseproof paper for its journey to pakistan in my mother-in-law’s luggage.

in case you are wondering why i did not share this recipe with you before christmas. well it is because i needed to eat it before doing so. but christmas will come again and you can bookmark it now for 2013.

the cake cooling on the wire rack
{christmas cake}

this should be done the night before the day you plan to bake your cake. take

two hundred and twenty-five grams sultanas
two hundred and twenty-five grams currants
two hundred and twenty-five grams raisins
one hundred and fifteen grams glace cherries
fifty-five grams candied orange peels
six dates
quarter cup brandy
sixty ml brandy

i always rinse my vine fruits and pat them dry before using them. chop the dates and cherries into roughly the same size pieces as the raisins and sultanas. place the fruits in a bowl, add the brandy and stir through. then cover the bowl with some cling wrap and let it set on the counter over night.

on how to prepare the cake tin

you could if you want prepare the cake tin the night before as well. i would recommend this if you are planning to bake first thing in the morning. i was baking on a sunday with no plans to leave the house so i did it the same morning. you will need a round nine inch loose bottomed cake tin, plenty of greaseproof paper, brown paper, a scissor and cotton string. delia’s visuals are a great guide on how to do this properly.

start by cutting two discs to line the bottom of the tin. you can either draw out the circle to the outline of the tin or remove the base and use that as a measure.

next cut out a long strip of greaseproof paper. it should be a little longer than the circumference of the tin and at least three inches higher than the height of the tin. delia’s method of folding and creating flaps ensures that the lining sits properly so i would really recommend following it.

then cut out an equal length of brown paper and secure it around the outside of the tin with a string. the paper fortress around the cake is essential to prevent the cake from drying during its long baking process.

the last step is to fold a length of greaseproof paper large enough to sit on top the tin. cut a fifty pence sized hole in the centre of this. this is meant to cover the cake batter.

cutting the greaseproof paper to line the cake tin 
making the batter

two hundred and twenty-five unsalted butter at room temperature
two hundred and twenty-five soft brown sugar
four large eggs
half  teaspoon vanilla essence
half  teaspoon almond essence
two hundred and twenty-five grams flour
half  teaspoon of cinnamon
half  teaspoon all spice
half teaspoon ground ginger
half teaspoon nutmeg
brandy soaked fruits (see above)
one tablespoon espresso or brewed filter coffee
grated zest of an orange
grated zest of a lemon
preheat the oven to one hundred and forty degrees celsius.

start by creaming the butter and sugar. it should be light, pale and fluffy. whisk the four eggs together in a measuring jug. this will make it easier for you to pour the egg mixture gradually into the creamed mixture.

incorporate the egg in intervals working slowly. if you incorporate the eggs too quickly the mixture will curdle. if this does happen delia says not to panic as all it means is that the cake will be a little denser. beat in the essences.

next sift together the dry ingredients. fold these into the batter. lastly, add the soaked fruits, zest and coffee and fold these into the batter. spoon the batter into the prepared cake tin and smooth it with the back of a spoon.

cover the tin with the doubled piece of greaseproof paper with the hole and place on the lowest shelf in the oven.

before putting the cake in the oven
baking the cake

this for me was the toughest bit. you need to set a timer for four hours. this is the minimum time indicated by both delia and deborah. beyond that point one has to use intuition. deborah uses the singing test (yes, really) which means that if you put the cake to your ear you will hear a sort of mellow hiss and fizzle. o and i tested this and it really works. but just to be sure i used the good old skewer test. mine cooked in four hours flat. i suspect this is because i used a fan assisted oven and i find that the cooking times with it vary quite a lot.

when the cake is done remove it from the oven and let it cool in the tin for around half an hour. then take it out and place it on a wire rack for finishing. at this point you will need a skewer or cocktail stick and three tablespoons of brandy. poke the surface of the cake and then spoon over the three tablespoons of brandy. you will be doing this regularly (once weekly in the run up to christmas).

once cooled and fed wrap the cake in two layers of greaseproof paper, followed by two layers of foil and store in an airtight container.

marzipan icing

make the marzipan icing ideally a week before christmas. this is because it needs to dry before you can finish the cake with royal icing. you could of course buy it ready made but i decided that i wanted to try my hand at it. i used delia’s recipe that was easy to follow. the only change i made was to use a hand-mixer instead of a whisk as i did not relish the thought of whisking for twelve minutes straight.

three hundred and fifty grams ground almonds
one hundred and seventy-five grams icing sugar (plus more for dusting)
one hundred and seventy-five grams caster sugar
three large eggs one of them separated
half teaspoon almond extract
one teaspoon lemon juice
one teaspoon brandy

begin by sifting the two sugars into a large glass heat-proof bowl. then stir in two whole eggs and yolk. place the bowl over a pan with barely simmering water and beat for twelve minutes until the mixture is thick and fluffy.

remove the pan from the heat and place in a cold water bath (i used a roasting tin with ice water in it). add the extract, lemon juice and brandy and continue beating until the mixture is cool.

when the mixture is cool add the ground almonds and knead to a firm paste. i found the marzipan to be quite sticky. dust your work surface with plenty of icing sugar and roll one third of the marzipan slightly larger than the size of the base of the cake. paint the surface of your cake with marmalade or apricot jam (avoiding the chunky bits). then turn the cake top side down and place it on the marzipan. now roll out the rest of the marzipan into a long rectangle and follow the same process to finish covering the cake. smooth  the joints with your hands or rolling pin.

let the cake rest on the kitchen counter covered with a clean cloth. this will help the marizpan layer dry out.

i finished the cake on christmas eve with its final robe of regal icing. dr oteker has a handy pack of ready rolled regal icing which was very easy to work with. i would really recommend saving yourself the trouble of rolling a block yourself. once again paint the surface of the cake with marmalade and follow the instructions on the box. it is a pity i had no holly shaped cutters as it would have been nice to decorate the cake with them. i also tied a maroon ribbon around it for a little fanfare.

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