Saturday, December 4, 2010

Weekend Cooking...Maura's Christmas Cake

My creation from a few years ago
Thanksgiving has past, and as usual, I am late in making my Christmas Cake. “But” you say, “you have weeks.”
No, because the cake must age. It must mature. It must be soaked in whiskey! I must get to work at once.

A Christmas Cake, in the Irish tradition, is a fruitcake. Not the nasty, candied fruit 'fruitcakes' you often find in the US, but a dense, fruity, nutty, rich cake, topped with a thick layer of marzipan and royal icing, to be eaten in small pieces, ideally with a nice cuppa tea. Or maybe something a bit stronger.

The best Christmas Cakes that I have ever tasted were the ones baked by my Aunt Maura. Now Maura was a force, a true force. My father, as I may have mentioned, was born in Ireland, one of a number of brothers and Maura was the wife of one of his brothers. A widow, the mother of two daughters, a dairy and then cattle farmer, she lived in the house she was born in, a very old house with a thatched roof. The house was at the Cross, the intersection of the road that goes to the market town of Mitchelstown and the road that does down to the 'town' of Ballindangen. A road she took her bike down, or walked, every day, past her fields, well into her eightys to go to daily Mass.

She played the fiddle, had taught it at one point, and, at the age of eighty, took up the concertina. She knew personally, it seemed, every musician in Ireland, a country known for it love of music and respect for musicians. The main room of her house, anchored on one end by the open fire that was the house's only source of heat (except for, in her later years, an electric heater in her bedroom), and on the other by the cupboard that contained all her dishes and cookware, was living room, kitchen and dining room. And on the very long, very dark, Irish winter nights, often the home to a gathering of her fellow musicians from the area for a 'session'. You could be there late into the evening any day and hear a knock on the door, someone just dropping in to see Maura. She always seemed to know everything that was going on...and was usually involved in it.

And oh, could she bake. When we would arrive for a visit from “the States”, she would have one of her apple tarts in the tiny oven waiting for our “tea”. I watched her make one on many occasions, a handful of this, a teacup of that, tried to copy down the ingredients and instructions, but have never been able to get it just right. But on her Christmas Cake, I really tried to pin her down, and with a figurative gun to her head, actually got her to write out the recipe. One funny point. As a girl, Maura had taken “The Pledge”, a promise not to drink alcohol and would proudly tell you she had never had a drink in her life. And yet, she always kept a bottle of Irish whiskey in the front parlour closet...”for the Christmas Cake, of course!”

As we would leave, every time, she would come to the door and hug us goodbye and get teary, saying that, “God willing”, she would still be alive to see us when we next visited. Sadly, it is not to be, as God called her home this year. I am not one to presume, at all, that everyone who dies goes to heaven, but surely Maura is there.
And I hope they have fruitcake...and great music and a good peat fire going in the fireplace in heaven and Maura will be right at home.

In her own words..
Maura's Christmas Cake

21 oz. mixed fruit 
2 1/2 oz. cherries
2 1/2 oz. almonds, ground
2 1/2 oz. mixed peel
2 'good' tbs. whiskey
7 oz. flour
1 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. mixed spice (an Irish mix of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, allspice...)
2 oz. whole almonds
5 oz. butter
6 oz. demerara sugar
Rind and juice of a lemon and an orange
4 eggs

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, giving each egg 5 minutes beating into creamed sugar and butter. Add flour, sifted, and then fruit, seasoning etc and last, the whiskey.
Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees. Put mixture in oven at that heat for 30 minutes. Lower temperature to 275 and bake for 3-3 1/2 hours. Leave in the oven to cool and then take out and sprinkle whiskey on top. 

I will admit I have made a few chances. For the mixed fruit, I use King Arthur's fruitcake blend and KAF cherries and some chopped dates. I add a grated apple or two, something I read in other recipes. I use more spice...a total of 2 teaspoons of cinnamon, fresh grated nutmeg, cloves, ginger, allspice. I soak the fruit in rum or whiskey overnight before I make the cake. Yes, I have been known to use rum instead of Irish whiskey. Recipes are living things and I think you can play with them a bit.
But in my mind, it will always be Maura's Christmas Cake.

This is my contribution this to this week's Weekend Cooking.
"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend."
Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.


  1. Thanks for sharing about Maura. I love that even though she took "the pledge" she kept whiskey for her cake. Great story!

  2. What a beautiful post! It actually brought a tear to my eye... Maura reminded me of my Italian grandmother (and her recipes). Your cake is gorgeous!!

  3. What a great story. Funny, she reminds me of my husband's aunts in Poland. You really should go into the business of making these cakes. It is gorgeous!

  4. part of the problem would be what that cost to make...the fruit, the whiskey..the marzipan! I have never added it up, but I would think mine costs about $50.

  5. of course, mine starts with a cup of liquor...

  6. A great story, worthy of publication! And the cake - is that picture for real?!!! I had no idea King Arthur sold a fruit cake mix - I am a rabid fan of King Arthur's flour. I make rum cake every year but hmmmm, I wonder if I should try this recipe! (I eat it very very fast so no one will know it doesn't look like yours!!!)

  7. yes, that picture is for real, a photo of the cake I made a couple of years ago.
    I guess I never took a picture of more recent ones...but that is what I aim for.

  8. What a legacy Maura leaves behind, and how wonderful that you are keeping the tradition alive!

    My husband's grandmother used to cook the same way. The Italians do a Christmas Eve vigil with all sorts of exotic dishes. I also "made" her stop and actually measure the ingredients so that I could have a recipe to follow. I am so very grateful that I did.

    Thanks for sharing, Caite. Perhaps one year I will attempt Aunt Maura's Christmas cake myself.

  9. p.s. we need the icing recipe too - I love marzipan!

  10. You can make your own marzipan from almonds and sugar but personally, I just use Odensa bland marzipan, that comes in a foil tube and roll it out and drape it over the cake. In past years, I have used 2-3 tubes but have been marzipan lovers..that traditionally, the layer should be thicker.
    I am pricing cases on Amazon as we speak.

    The royal icing is simple.
    1 lb confectioners sugar
    2 egg whites
    2 tsp lemon juice (for flavor)

    beat egg whites till just frothy. gradually add the sugar, beating on low speed as you add. when all the sugar is in, add the lemon. Beat until it forms stiff peaks.

    ok, this will harden pretty quickly if exposed to the air, so work fast as you ice and keep covered with a damp cloth if it is sitting.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing some of your memories of your aunt. She sounds like such a truly wonderful person. It's a real blessing when we have someone like her in our lives. Your cake is gorgeous!

  12. Caite, this is a beautifully told tribute to your aunt. I also had misty-eyes reading it.

    The cake sounds wonderful. I'd love to try it. One question: you mentioned it needs to age. How long? Am I too late for it to be done by Christmas?

  13. One more question: Could it be baked in a loaf pan?

  14. Lovely story. And the fruitcake looks too nice to eat. And I do like fruitcake, the real kind!

  15. Thank-you for sharing such a lovely memory.

  16. What a wonderful story and recipe. I am not a fan of cakes with fruit, but I have to admit it sounds good.

  17. What a great story and a lovely, lovely lady. I am so glad you shared her story and the story of the cake. I think I might give this a try -- I have an excuse to order from KAF. Oh and how long does the cake age? Do you add more whiskey during the aging?

  18. could it be baked in a loaf pan? sure..I would think it is enough batter for two standard loaf pans.
    another word on that...if you read Irish recipes online, like Darina Allen's excellent one, there is a lot of discussion of pan prep.
    I oil mine...line it with parchment paper and then oil that. you don't want it to stick.

    How long to age it?
    the longer the better! A couple of weeks as a minimum, to months, which is not at all unusual. I leave the parchment on the side and bottom, then wrap it in foil and then put it in a plastic container. The idea is to aim for airtight.

    More whiskey?
    yes you add more whiskey, to keep it moist. I usually just sprinkle, but some people use a mister and spray it.

  19. That was a beautiful tribute to your aunt and her life. I've never had this kind of cake, but I am intrigued by it now even though I'm not a fan of fruit in cake.

  20. Kathleen, thanks for such a nicely written, warm post. Mam (as we grandchildren called her) truly had so much time for you and all the Fitzgeralds. I trying everything I can not to well up here in work thanks to your vivid portrayal of her. Have a great Christmas and enjoy your cake, look forward to seeing you all soon!

  21. {{waving to Ciaran, far across the Ocean}}

    Yes, indeed Maura was a force, wasn't she. It is hard to believe she is gone and she will indeed be missed.

  22. Thanks for sharing-I love fruitcake-my mum would make a light and dark cake every year. I make a light one with dried fruit-apples, apricots, figs and pears.


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