For years the debate has raged in Canada’s northern territories: who makes the best Christmas cake? Which combination of old-country family tradition and northern improvisation has resulted in the fruitiest, darkest, richest fruit cake northerners can concoct? There have been letters to the editor, there have been contests, there have been recipe exchanges between communities from Kugluktuk to Watson Lake. The result? Ha! THERE IS NO BEST! And guess what? It doesn’t matter.
Low bush cranberries lend beautiful colour to the dried fruit mixture
You gather whatever dried fruits and nuts you can from the Riverside Grocery in Whitehorse, from The Northern Store in Inuvik, from the Arctic Ventures store in Iqaluit, from the care packages sent by southern rellies, or from the bulk order you make with your food co-op. And then you find a basic recipe you can believe in, throw in your raisins and apricots, your pineapples and mangoes, add some dried northern berries and then you mix it up. The rest is the madness of art. (Thank you, Henry James.)
Small and crunchy organic pecans from a supplier in BC
The recipe here is based on Joy of Cooking’s Dark Fruit Cake II. I dried low-bush cranberries for this cake; I dried blueberries we picked last summer, I substituted half a cup of birch syrup for the same amount of brown sugar, and now I’ve joined the ranks of northern Christmas cake-e-teers, drumming up support for my own, made-up version. Here comes the recipe. If you want to read a Christmas cake story, scroll down to the very end.
Boreal Christmas Cakes, fresh from the oven
Boreal Christmas Cake
(Adapted from Joy of Cooking’s Dark Fruit Cake II)
Though Joy posits this recipe makes 11 lbs. (5 kg. ) fruit cake, in my experience it’s more like about 9 ½ lbs (4.5 kg). Joy suggests two 8-inch (20 cm) tube pans and two 4 ½ x 8 inch (11 cm x 20 cm) loaf pans.
I used 2 shallow, rectangular 6-inch by 4-inch (15 cm x 10 cm) baking dishes, two 9-inch by 6-inch (23 cm x 15 cm) baking dishes and one 6-inch by 3-inch (15 cm x 7.5 cm) souffle dish. This variety lends present-giving options; for single-person households, larger households, and those in which Christmas cake is enjoyed by the few rather than the many.
The selection of pansPrepare the baking pans by buttering them first then cutting parchment paper to fit each dish with an overhang of about two inches. For round pans, cut a bottom circle and strips that reach over top of the sides by an inch.
Step One: The Dried Fruit
Feel free to mix up the dried fruit combination, and also the spices. My friend Janet detests cloves; you may too. Substitute! Those of you lucky enough to live in the boreal forest, rejoice in the wild, tart, flavour and deep crimson visual elements lent by the dried low bush cranberries. Those who have access to bog cranberries, especially organic dried bog cranberries, use them liberally.
¾ cup (180 mL) dried wild blueberries
1 ½ cups (375 mL) dried low bush cranberries
1 cup (250 mL) dried mango
2 cups (480 mL) currants
1 ¾ cups (380 ml) mission figs, chopped
2 cups (480 mL) dried apricots, chopped
2 cups (480 mL) Thompson raisins
¾ cup (180 mL crystallized ginger, chopped
1 cup (250 mL) red wine
½ cup (125 mL) brandy or cognac
The night before baking, prepare the dried fruit: Snip or chop the mango, figs, ginger and apricot. (Dip the scissors or knife in hot water periodically to reduce gumminess.)
Combine all the dried fruit, red wine and brandy or cognac in a medium-sized pot and stir well. Place the pot over a burner set at medium heat and cook–from the time the fruits begin to hiss, count five minutes. You want the mixture to heat through but not caramelize. Remove from heat, cover and let sit overnight at room temperature.
Fruit and batter combinedStep Two: The Batter
This is the best Joy of Cooking advice ever, to be followed with total submission: have all ingredients at room temperature.
2 cups (1 lb, 454 gr) butter
1 ½ cups (375 mL) packed brown sugar
½ cup (125 mL) birch syrup
10 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp. (30 mL) vanilla
Cream the butter until fluffy, add sugar and cream until light. Add the birch syrup, eggs and vanilla and beat until thoroughly incorporated.
6 cups (1.5 L) all-purpose flour
2 tsp (10 mL) salt
½ tsp (2.5 mL) baking soda
2 tsp (10 mL) cinnamon
1 tsp (5 mL) nutmeg
½ tsp (2.5 mL) mace
½ tsp (2.5 mL) coriander
½ tsp (2.5 mL) ground cloves
¼ tsp (1.2 mL) cardamom
3 cups chopped pecans
Sift the flour, salt, soda and spices together. Add to the butter and egg mixture, stir, then add the dried fruit and pecans. Mix well, calling on extra muscle, if available. (Hey you, quit chopping that wood/building that studio/carding that musk ox hair into wool and come stir some batter!)
Chpped pecans, into the mix
Glop the batter into the prepared pans and press into the corners, using the back of your hand as a tool. (The back of the hand is cooler than the palm, and less apt to stick to the batter.)
Pans, glopped full.
If necessary, wet the hands with a bit of water.
Set the oven to 275F (135 C). Arrange two racks in the middle regions of the oven, and disperse the baking pans amongst them.
Time the cooking according to the size of your pans. I found the smaller pans (about ¾ lb (300 gr) of batter) took 45 minutes, the souffle dish (about 1 ½ lb (700 gr) batter) took 90 minutes, and the 9-inch x six-inch (about 2 ¾ lbs (1.3 kg) of batter) took a full two hours.
When the cakes are done, cool in the pan for 20 minutes on a rack then remove from the pans and cool completely, anywhere from two to three hours. (Yes, it’s a long day.)
Douse! Douse! And souse! Souse!
Step Three: The Dousing
Now, you’re ready to douse the cakes with spirits, wrap and store.
2 cups (480 mL) good red wine
¾ cup (180 mL) brandy or cognac
Combine wine and brandy or cognac in a measuring cup with a good pouring spout.
For each cake, cut a double or triple thickness of cheesecloth big enough to wrap the cake like a present. Soak the cheesecloth in the wine and brandy mixture, squeezing out the excess liquid.
Lay a piece of tin foil out on the counter. Place the cheesecloth on the tin foil and the cake on top of the cheesecloth. Prick the cake with a toothpick at regular intervals. Slowly pour a tablespoon of the wine and brandy over top, letting the liquid sink into the cake. Turn the cake over and repeat. Wrap the cake in the cheesecloth, then in the tin foil. Repeat until all the cakes are soused and wrapped. Store in a cool, dark place.
Once a week, repeat the sousing ritual. Carry on with this nonsense for a full year, or stop after six weeks (or in my case, because I was late getting started, three weeks) break out the Christmas Cake, cut into slices and enjoy.
PS: Those of you who like Marzipan and Royal Icing on your Christmas cake, give me a few days and I will provide you with the recipe and method.
Now I must go and eat salmon. Adieu. (For Christmas Cake story, continue scrolling down.)
The cake is having a wee dram, why not you?
Christmas Cake: The Moveable Feast
The first time I made Christmas cake was in December 1981 on the island of Alonissos in Greece. I was 25 and it was my second Christmas away from home. My boyfriend Nikos and I had just bought a new, orange-and-black speckled aluminum wood stove that had an oven. This revolutionized our cooking. Until then we had done everything on a two-burner counter-top propane-fueled stove. We were pretty excited about having an oven. Me in particular. Now I could make Christmas cake.
The Rooftops of Patitiri, with Two Brothers in the distance, and Scanzura out of sight behind. That’s Skyros in the distance.
On the Day of the Night of the Christmas cake I read the Joy of Cooking, made a list and walked down to Patitiri to scour the pantopoleions (“sell-everything” stores) for currants, raisins, apricots, dried figs, almonds, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
At 4 pm Nikos left for the isle of Scanzoura on a fishing trip with his cousin Yiannis Mavros, who was afraid of ghosts. (Many of the men in Nikos’ family were afraid of ghosts.) He would be gone all night. I got busy: chopped fruit, soaked the fruit in Metaxa, chopped nuts, beat eggs, combined wet ingredients with dry, drank Metaxa, and wrestled with my own ghosts—the ghosts of Christmases past, who were alive and well and havng Christmas without me at our family ski cabin in Ontario.
Oh, how I missed them!
I put the cakes into our new oven and wrote those ghosts some letters, starting with my ex-boyfriend, who still haunted the chambers of my heart. I wrote my mom and dad, I wrote my brothers, I wrote my little sister, reaching out to all of them from my uncertain new life, of which no one approved. I drank Metaxa. I turned the Christmas cakes so they would cook evenly in the uneven heat, which blazed up to 250C or sank down to a sleepy 120C. I drank more Metaxa. I turned the cakes. I wished my family was with me, or I was with them, or we were all together in a combination of our old and new lives.
At 6:30 in the morning Nikos came home, his net bag empty of fish. What happened? Why no fish? “Yiannis saw a light on the island of Sanzoura and became frightened. He was so scared he shook. I couldn’t make him stay.We came home without even throwing down a net. Eight hours and not one fish!” Never mind, I said. Here is a glass of Metaxa. And here are six Christmas cakes. “Bravo Michelaki,”said Nikos.
We gave a cake to Nikos’ sister Evanthea and her kids. They asked, “Michele, could you not have put more nuts and raisins in this cake?” This was a joke, repeated often.
Now I’m in my Whitehorse kitchen, making a Christmas cake again. I do not have Metaxa. I have V.S.O.P Napoleon Five Star brandy. But every time I sluice brandy over the cakes I’m reaching back into that old Alonissos kitchen, back into the kitchen at the ski cabin in southern Ontario, back into the old stories, the old lives and the new lives we’re living now.
And so the doors open to the Museum of Nostalgia. Come in! Please, help yourself to cake.
House of the kitchen where was baked the Boreal cake
Good night! Have fun watching This Hour! (Whee! we’re decorating the tree tonight!)