Are you surprised that food is the heart and soul of so many family memories? That the dish most clearly etched on your taste buds is a cherished family recipe passed down from generation to generation?
Celebrating Canada's most delicious heritage recipes is a splendid way to enjoy the holidays. I would like to share one of my mother's keeper recipes -- her dense, jewel-studded Christmas cake. As I haul out the recipe at the approach of each festive season, it stirs up memories that go beyond tasty nibbling. Early in November, there was always the shopping ritual of choosing the fruit and nuts -- the finest candied fruit still came in whole orange and lemon halves, the nuts in their shells.
Then my father would be dispatched to the liquor store, an uninviting place my mother would never have entered in the late '40s. Then followed an all-hands-on-deck day of chopping, soaking and finally, in the three square tins reserved only for Christmas and weddings, the baking. What a fragrance of lemon, nuts, butter and rum that filled the kitchen, and finally our whole little redbrick house on Britannia Street in Stratford, Ont.
The cake was a big project because it was never made just for our family of four. There were grandmothers and great aunts who didn't bake them any more, the maiden ladies next door, friends and guests. And since my sister's birthday and my birthday fell on Dec. 27 and 25 respectively, pieces of cake were set aside, just waiting to be iced and decorated with candles. Then there was my father, whose job it was also to douse the cakes, kept safely in the fruit cellar, with the remaining rum. He kept, just for his own snacking purposes, a knife beside the cake tins in case the cakes needed a taste test as they ripened. Probably a glass, too, just to test the brandy or rum, but my memory's a little fuzzier on that one.
Only later did I learn about two charming customs associated with Christmas pudding and cake. There was Stir-Up Sunday, the name given by Church of England parishioners to the Sunday before Advent, derived from the opening of that day's special prayer -- Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people... It was a signal for all the cooks in the congregation to get their holiday pudding on the go. Nor did I know about taking turns stirring the pudding or cake, always clockwise, each person taking a stir and making a wish for the coming year. However, we did put fortune-telling charms into the pudding -- the silver coin for wealth being the coveted find!
We know that everyone is busy, especially as the holiday season approaches. But now is when we think about our heritage dishes. So while your taste memories are fresh, take a little quiet time and remember your history in the kitchen.
Enjoy two of Elizabeth's family favourites:
Rich Brandied Fruitcake
Preparation for fruitcake is now a lot faster given today's quality diced candied peel and seeded raisins. Thank goodness the flavour is still as good as it was in my mother's day.
Apricot Pecan Pound Cake
Dried apricots, golden raisins and crunchy pecans update and lighten fruitcake without sacrificing any of its traditional charms. Make this stylish moist cake in a large loaf pan for a special occasion and in smaller ones to give away or unwrap and slice as needed throughout the festive season.
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