A Child’s Christmas

Until now I haven’t written about children’s literature –  mainly because I thought this was an area I would move on to once I had exhausted food in the adult classics of English Literature (if I ever do!). But with my thoughts turning to Christmas, I remembered Dylan Thomas’s charming A Child’s Christmas In Wales and its references to seasonal fare.  


Thomas’s prose work, which was originally written for radio in 1952, is an affectionate nostalgic recollection of Welsh childhood Christmases.  A loosely-structured collection of anecdotes in Thomas’s lyrical and sensuous language, the work features snow as a recurring motif in order to convey the fairy-tale like wonder of remembered childhood Christmases:  

Years and years ago, when I was a boy…it snowed and it snowed.  …Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.

And as with many childhood memories, food plays a significant role.  The narrator recalls “the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils“, the sight of people whose “cheeks bulged with goose“, and his own Christmas dinner of “turkey and blazing pudding“.  And there are sweets, which fall into the narrator’s category of “Useless Presents” (as opposed to the “Useful Presents” of “mufflers,…mittens…scarfs…balaclavas“):

Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan and butterwelsh

Perhaps precisely because they are “useless” there is something particularly delightful about making sweets at Christmas time.  And fudge was one of the first things I learned to cook as a young child.  Living in a big old North Devon Victorian vicarage, with a rayburn that never managed to reach a very high heat, my fudge was destined to remain sticky and never set properly – and thankfully I was also probably saved a few burns and scalds.  Now I have a gas hob, and a sugar thermometer, I can heat the mixture to the requisite 115C, making myself and my family some delicious fudge and earning myself a few scalds and burns at the same time.

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS FUDGE (though best made by an adult, or with an adult in close attendance at all time!)

Ingredients (makes 16 pieces approx):
300ml milk (I used semi-skimmed, but you can use full-fat and also substitute some of the milk  with cream if you want an even creamier fudge)
350g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method: 
Grease and line a 18cm square cake tin or a 20cm diameter round sandwich cake tin.
Put the milk, sugar and butter in a heavy-based saucepan and heat, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted.  Don’t panic if the milk starts to form little clumps of milk solids – they will dissolve as the mixture heats up.
Bring to the boil, and boil for 15-20 minutes stirring all the time, until the ‘soft ball’ stage is reached.  If you have a sugar thermometer this is 115C; if you don’t have one you can test if the mixture is ready by dropping 1 teaspoon of the mixture into a bowl of cold water.  If the mixture forms  a ball in the water, but then flattens on being removed from the water, it has reached the ‘soft ball’ stage and is ready.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the vanilla essence.  Leave to cool slightly – for no more than 5 minutes.  Then using a wooden spoon beat the mixture until it starts to thicken and lose its gloss.
Pour into the prepared tin and leave to cool overnight – do not put in the fridge.  When cooled, cut into small squares and store in an airtight container.

Christmas Cake

Christmas is a favourite time of year in literature, with its appearance serving many different narrative functions.  It provides an occasion for characters to be reunited – as in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) where Tom Tulliver returns from school to his family.  Christmas can also provide drama, such as the Christmas meal in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), during which the soldiers hunting the escaped prisoners – including Magwitch, whom the protagonist Pip has supplied with his sister’s Christmas pork pie – arrive and disrupt proceedings.  In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published 18 years earlier in 1843 Christmas provides the motivation and opportunity for personal change, with the miserly Scrooge learning to love and give after he is visited by an array of ghosts.


And of course Christmas scenes give writers the opportunity to describe Christmas food.  In  A Christmas Carol Bob Cratchit, Dickens’ poorly paid employee, his wife and six children, including the lame Tiny  Tim, although forced by penury to share one goose amongst them, treat their  Christmas meal – ‘eked out by …apple-sauce and mashed potatoes’ – as a veritable feast.  Likewise the family greet the arrival of the Christmas pudding, brought in by Mrs Cratchit, with great joy, calling it a ‘wonderful pudding’, and ‘nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family.’

The Wonderful Pudding by Sol Eytinge, 1869
(Scanned image and text by Philip V, Allingham
http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/eytinge/39.html)

In The Mill on the Floss the narrator notes that ‘the dessert was as splendid as ever with its golden oranges, brown nuts, and the crystalline light and dark of apple jelly and damson cheese.’  The familiarity of the Christmas food provides some comfort for Tom Tulliver who finds other changes in his family since his absence.

At the heart of food – and particularly Christmas food – is of course the idea of generosity: of giving to others, and sharing with them.  This is illustrated in the efforts Jane Eyre makes in preparing Christmas food for her newly adopted family in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel.  It is towards the end of the novel and Jane has fled her home, Thornfield, following the discovery that the man she was about to marry, Mr Rochester, is already married.  In great distress, with no money and nowhere to go, Jane takes refuge with the Rivers family: the clergyman, St John, and his sisters Diana and Mary.    During her stay there, just before Christmas, Jane receives two welcome pieces of news:   her uncle in Madeira has died and left her a fortune; and the Rivers are in fact her cousins.  Keen to thank her new-found family for their hospitality, and desiring to particularly show her love to Diana and Mary who are away but soon to return, Jane – as well as planning to share her fortune with them – decides that the Christmas arrangements will be undertaken by her, as she tells St John:

My first aim will be … to clean down Moor House from chamber to cellar; my next to rub it up with beeswax, oil, and an indefinite number of cloths, till it glitters again; my third, to arrange every chair, table, bed, carpet, with mathematical precision, afterwards I shall go near to ruin you in coals and peat to keep up good fires in every room; and lastly, the two days preceding that on which your sisters are expected will be devoted by Hannah (the housekeeper) and me to such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince pies, and solemnizing of other culinary rites…

Last year I blogged about making mince pies, with reference to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – see here.  So this year I thought it was time for a Christmas cake recipe.  I have made my family Christmas Cake for over 20 years.  Like all long-standing recipes, it reflects our particular tastes – some of my family are not big fans of dried fruit, particularly currants, so I just use raisins and an abundance of glace cherries.  And nuts – once disliked by one of my brothers – have been omitted.  And since my Mum always made our Christmas cake with guinness, rather than brandy, so do I.  But provided you keep the quantity of the ingredients the same, you can adapt the recipe below to suit your tastes.

I usually make my Christmas cake the last weekend in November – though this one was made a week earlier – but it could be made even earlier, or later.  Marzipan and icing instructions to follow as Christmas approaches.

A BOOK-LOVER’S CHRISTMAS CAKE

Ingredients: 
450g raisins
450g glace cherries, rinsed, dried and halved
3 tablespoons  Guinness
225g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
225g unsalted butter
225g soft brown sugar (I use 100g light brown and 125g dark brown)
4 large eggs
1 dessertspoon black treacle
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange

Method: 
The evening before you want to bake the cake, put the raisins and cherries in a mixing bowl and mix in the Guinness.  Cover the bowl with a tea-cloth or cling film and leave for at least 12 hours.
The next day, begin by preparing the cake tin.  Grease a 20cm loose-based round cake tin and line both the sides and the base with baking parchment.  Tie a band of baking parchment around the outside of the tin for extra protection.

Pre-heat the oven to 140C (Fan 120C) or Gas mark 1.  Sift the flour, salt and spices into a large mixing bowl.  In a separate large mixing bowl cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.  Add them to the butter and sugar mixture 1 tablespoonful at a time, adding 1 tablespoon of the flour and spice mixture between each spoonful of egg to avoid the mixture curdling.  Then fold in the remaining flour and spices, followed by the fruit, treacle and finally  the lemon and orange zest.

Spoon the cake mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top.  Cover the top of the cake with a double square of double square of baking parchment with a £2 coin-sized hole in the middle.  Because the cake cooks for such a long period of time, extra protection is needed.  Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 4 – 5 hours.

Cool the cake in the tin for at least 30 minutes, and then remove it to a wire rack to finish cooling.  When it is cold, use a skewer or cake tester to prick holes into the cake and ‘feed’ the cake with about 1 tablespoon of Guinness.  Then wrap the cake in a double layer of baking parchment and 1 layer of foil, or store in an airtight box.  Feed it on a weekly basis until you are ready to decorate the cake.

A Christmas Interlude

As Christmas approaches, I thought it would be fitting to take a break from my chronological journey through literature and come up with something a little festive. Obviously Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) has the Christmas meal par excellence, but with the school term having only ended on Friday I don’t think I really have time to roast a goose or make a plum pudding in order to replicate the meal enjoyed by Bob Cratchit and his family.  Continue reading “A Christmas Interlude”