Just before Christmas 2000, I walked into the Korean grocery store in my neighborhood, like I’d done many times before. But seeing the packages of raisins, currants, mixed fruits, cherries and brown sugar stacked in neat piles in the store that day, momentarily transported me back to the days when I used to help my mother bake. Before I knew it, I was walking home with a bag full of baking ingredients.
In the years after I left home, I never once thought of baking. I had no reason to. I don’t like rum cake – too many fruits. When I was younger, I hated raisins, and wouldn’t so much as look at currants or prunes, which is exactly why I made the perfect assistant. We did almost everything by hand then so Mama had me grind the fruits with a little handheld meat grinder while she chopped nuts and cherries. She knew I loved cherries and nuts, so she never trusted me not to sneak some while she wasn’t looking.
When we spoke the following day, I told Mama about my purchase. I told her proudly I’d do the baking that year since I’d be home for Christmas with her and my grandmother. Mama burst out laughing.
“But you don’t bake!” she said as if she was telling me something I didn’t already know.
I had to agree: I didn’t bake even after all the times I had helped her. Even after she’d given me her favorite Christmas cake recipe. Written in her own firm handwriting, each time I looked at it, I felt as if I were girl again back in our kitchen.
I made two cakes that year before I left New York, which I gave as gifts, but Mama was still skeptical about my baking ability. On Christmas morning, I woke at 5 a.m. just like we did years before. Unlike the times we baked together, this time, I had a food processor to mix the batter.
Mama was in her room. I didn’t realize she was awake and listening until she called out to tell me that the sugar and butter were creamed sufficiently. She knew I was using a food processor for the first time and was helping me out even though she wasn’t in the kitchen. I scooped some batter into a spoon and asked her to check. She agreed that it was ready. By the time we had breakfast, my cakes were done and cooling.
Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, we go from home to home to visit relatives and friends. The Christmas cake takes center stage as gifts and we also serve slices of cake with glasses of sorrel or homemade ginger drink when guests arrive. Everyone said my cake was light, moist and rummy and Mama proudly announced that “Marcia did the baking.”
I’ve always admired my mother, a multi-talented woman who excelled at everything she did. Her approval sent me over the moon. Unlike prior Christmases when she’d bake early in December and take every opportunity to snack on a slice of cake, Mama didn’t eat after the small piece she had on Christmas Day.
I didn’t know it then but that Christmas, Mama passed her spatula to me. Four months later, she left suddenly followed seven months after by my grandmother. Their passing almost took the joy out of Christmas for me that year. I had no desire to bake. But when December came, I knew I had to. I gathered the fruits that I had left soaking in rum since the previous December and the other ingredients and baked. It gave me strength and flooded my heart with warm memories.
I revived an old tradition that year and started a new one in my home. And even though I don’t have a daughter to share it with or eat any of the cakes I make, I still make them in honor of her. Every time I bake a Christmas cake, it’s like we’re baking together.
- 6 oz flour
- 8 oz butter
- 8 oz brown sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 lb raisins
- ½ lb currants
- 4 oz prunes
- 4 oz cherries
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp almond essence
- 1 tsp Rosewater (optional)
- I tsp lime zest (finely grated lime peel)
- 4 oz almonds, chopped (optional)
- Browning (optional, as the brown sugar and fruits will give the cake a rich, brown color)
- Remove any pits or stems from raisins and currants, wash, place in a glass container and cover with white rum. Or, bring fruits and rum mixture to a boil. Turn off and let cool. Set a few whole fruits aside then grind the rest.
- Grind prunes and chop the cherries. Add to the fruit mixture.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 9” baking pan with butter and dust with flour or line bottom and sides with grease paper.
- Sieve flour, add dry ingredients - cinnamon, salt, baking powder
- Beat eggs, add wet ingredients – vanilla, almond, rosewater, lime zest
- Bring butter to room temperature and cream with sugar (and browning, if used) until soft. Alternate adding flour and fruits to butter and sugar. Fold in chopped almonds. Mix thoroughly.
- Pour into baking tin and bake at 350 degrees for 1½ hours.
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