It was always about this time of year when our mother would return from one of her regular visits to our posh Auntie Doris’s house clutching a blue A5 page ripped out of a Basildon Bond writing pad from the Post Office, scribbled upon which, in our posh Auntie Doris’s neat hand, would be her recipe for Christmas cake.
She lived about three streets away did our posh Auntie Doris, where the houses were a bit posher than ours and her also-posh sister, our posh Auntie Phyllis lived at the top of the hill in a council house but notwithstanding the fact that she lived in a council house with her painter and decorator husband who worked for the council, she too was posh.
Which was strange because they were our dads older sisters and our dad was anything but posh and they’d all been brought up in Beeston, a district of Leeds which is probably as anti-posh as you get, but our aunties had taken on their posh airs when they had moved to this new suburb in the 1950s, and tutted in disbelief when their younger brother has bought his bungalow just a few streets away in the 1960s, “There goes the neighborhood now our Frank has moved in with his two urchins” they would have undoubtedly sighed through gritted teeth.
So our mother would walk around to our Auntie Doris’s now and again upon invitation and they would sit in her posh kitchen at the posh kitchen table and our posh Auntie Doris would make her a cup of tea using Earl Grey tea leaves that she bought from her tea supplier in Harrogate rather than the Ringtons tea man who delivered to our house, and when our mother switched to teabags after they had been invented our posh Auntie Doris almost had a thrombosis at the news.
Here’s something else too, there was a time in the 1960s when Cadbury’s Smash was invented and our dad thought it was the best invention since the last time that anyone had invented dried food that came back to life with a kettle of boiling water, this was very space age stuff, our dad couldn’t believe it and we had to have Cadbury’s Smash every teatime and when our dad added a tab of butter before adding the boiling water you’d think that he’d just invented a new recipe worthy of serving to Her Majesty The Queen, “Makes all the difference that tab of butter does” he explained to everyone who would listen and to be honest he was probably right.
Anyway our ultra-posh Uncle Ken came around one night running an errand for his wife our posh Auntie Doris (are you keeping up), and he stood there in the living room of our small bungalow where all four of us sat watching TV with a plate of tea with Cadbury’s Smash on our knees, and you could tell that he didn’t approve for all of the meals taken at their house were taken in a specific dining room, a room that we didn’t have incidentally, where you sat up properly and didn’t watch TV at all while trying to find your mouth with an upside down forkfull of Cadbury’s Smash with Bachelors garden peas stuck to it.
“Have you ever had Cadbury’s Smash Ken ?” our dad asked him in an effort to strike up some conversation, they had absolutely nothing in common and our dad hated Ken with a vengeance after he had refused to lend him £200 as a deposit for their first house when our dad and mum had got married.
Our posh Uncle Ken turned his head slowly and regarded the plate of Cadbury’s Smash on our dads knee with a look on his face that reminded me of the way Reg Butler down the bottom of the street had looked as he leaned on a lamp post for support and lifted one foot to regard his Hush Puppy shoe that was now ruined after slipping in a big pile of Chummy’s shite, the dog who live next door to Reg.
“I don’t believe I have Frank” is all our posh Uncle Ken replied
“Well you should” said our dad, “and add a tab of buitter to it, makes all the difference”.
“Is it that powdered stuff they advertise on TV ?” asked our posh Uncle Ken.
“Aye thats right” replied our dad, “tell our Doris to add a tab of butter to it, makes all the difference”
Our posh Uncle Kens face wrinkled up in horror at the thought of eating space age food that was a dusty white powder until you added boiling water, “It reminds me of powdered eggs in the war” was all he could splutter whilst gagging at the thought.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that he had a big plate of Cadbury’s Smash on his knees then our dad would have leaped up and thumped our posh Uncle Ken plumb on the jaw, “Its nowt like bloody powdered eggs, nowt at all you bloody idiot, what do you know about space age food anyway ?”
Our mother quickly hustled our posh Uncle Ken out of the bungalow before our dad really lost his temper and left our dad to mutter on for the rest of the night about “That big ponce, what does he know about powdered space age food, nowt like powdered eggs, bloody idiot” while me and our Ned sat on the settee clutching our ribs and laughing silently behind our hands.
None of which has anything to do with our mother coming home at this time of year clutching a blue piece of paper ripped from a pad of Basildon Bond bought from the Post Office upon which was written in our posh Auntie Doris’s neat hand writing, her recipe for Christmas cake, and here is where I must explain one major difference between our posh Auntie Doris and our mother, well apart from the many degrees of poshness of course, you see our posh Auntie Doris was an ace baker, and our mother was not, in fact our mother was as far removed from being an ace baker as it is ever possible to be, our mothers baking always ended up on the lawn for the birds to eat and the birds around those parts knew from learning the hard way that if you wanted to eat our mothers abandoned baking then you had to leave it on the lawn, in the rain, for at least three days before attempting to peck it.
Yet every year our mother would gather together all of the numerous ingredients on our posh Auntie Doris’s recipe list, and they were indeed numerous including dried fruits that we had never heard of, dried fruits that the man who ordered things at the Co-op store on Green Lane had never heard of either but he ordered them from head office especially for the posh ladies of these parts and several weeks later these unheard of dried fruits would arrive from Africa or the West Indies and our mother would stride into the Co-op and declare in confidence, whilst reading from our posh Auntie Doris’s list, which of the exotic dried fruits she required and in what quantities.
A whole Sunday would be dedicated to the mixing of the Christmas cake and while we watched Sunday afternoon football with Keith Macklin and Martin Tyler on TV the tra-la-la’s of our mother would echo from the kitchen and every now and again there would be a grinding of gears and a high pitched whine from the Kenwood Chef food mixer on its once-a-year outing from the cupboard, accompanied by an “Oh!” from our mother as it always whisked a bit too fast and spat some of the exotic fruits out of the bowl.
Eventually the mixing would be done and out on its annual outing from the cupboard would come the big cake tin and some brown paper and thence would follow several hours of baking in the oven with our mother taking the cake tin out every ten minutes or so to poke it with a knife for some reason, then she’d put it back and wait some more.
It has to be said that the resultant Christmas cake that eventually emerged was never really anything more than we expected, a heavy, solid slab of exotic dried fruits that was never any taller than the mixture that she’d poured into the tin hours before, I’m not even sure if Christmas cake is supposed to rise in the baking, but ours never did, it just sat there sullenly threatening everyone with instant indigestion if they ever dared to chew on a piece.
So she’d render the threatening cake with a good old dollop of marzipan bought in a paving sized slab from the Co-op and barely rolled out with a rolling pin at all, our Christmas cakes always had a healthy thickness of marzipan on them, up to an inch thick normally in order to make the cake look bigger, and better, and to impress our posh Auntie Doris when she invariably would come around to scoff at the effort.
Then would come the best bit, out would come the Kenwood Chef again and in the immense bowl would be poured industrial quantities of icing sugar and then whatever it is you mix icing sugar with to make icing (water???) until eventually we had enough icing sugar to lay a new driveway with and the ritual of icing the Christmas cake could begin.
Huge dollops of icing would go on top of the marzipan and when enough depth of icing was on it would be formed into waves and peaks and troughs by means of patting it with the flat of a knife and out of the back of a drawer that we had never even noticed before would come “the toys”, ornaments to push into the icing before it “went off”, ornaments as old as the hills that had probably belonged to an ancestor several generations removed, a plaster-of-paris snowman with part of his top hat chipped off, a boy and girl sitting on a sledge, a christmas tree with real bristles that looked like it had once been part of a broom and painted green, and a sprig of holly, then we’d rain the top with silver ball bearings that really felt like actual ball bearings if you were ever unfortunate enough to bite down on one, then we were done and the Christmas cake would “rest” for four weeks until Christmas tea.
By which time it would be completely inedible, the icing sugar would have set harder than diamonds and there was not a chance in the world that any steel knife known to man could have cut out a slice, all you could do is spend ten minutes or so hitting the cake with heavy implements until a a weakness could be exposed in the icing, a fault where perhaps it had dried too quickly and from the crack you could often pries a chunk of icing off to reveal the marzipan underneath, the icing being thrown out of the window onto the lawn for the birds to partake of several days later.
A few morsels were all that was ever eaten of our mothers Christmas cake and indigestion would surely follow, then by around mid-February the cake would have its toys removed for next years cake, and unceremoniously dumped in the bin from which the binmen would have to be warned at the next collection that two of them had better try and pick the bin up this week.