For the love of Christmas cake

Food plays an integral role in Christmas celebrations here in Jamaica. There are many menu items that are generally “reserved” for the holiday season. The reason for this varies. Some items such as ham and oxtail are on the pricier side and generally aren’t consumed frequently throughout the year because of this. Some items are seasonal such as gungo peas and sorrel. Other things like the Christmas cake are very labour and time intensive, but no Christmas would be complete without them.

Now, lets talk about the cake. I must admit to being ignorant of the finer details of the origin story of this beloved treat. A quick online search does reveal though, that its existence is linked to our colonial past. It has been likened to plum puddings that were enjoyed by the British during the 18th Century. Now, we arent going to focus on the history of this delectable treat because what I really want to focus on is the how important is it to people.

Making the cake is a very involved process and while I dont know how to make it myself, I have had to partake in the process many times. My grandmother would measure out the sugar and butter and beat them with a hand mixer until the grains of sugar were lost in the butter. Then came the eggs, which when added, made the sugar-butter mixture very silky. I used to dip my finger into the mixing bowl to sneak a taste (read – several tastes).

As a child, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Christmas cake, but being the taste tester kept me involved. I’d keep tasting as vanilla and spices and ingredients such as lime zest were added. I’d stop when we got to adding the fruits and flour, as this caused the the batter to thicken. I didn’t (and still dont) like the fruits. The chunks of raisins and prunes and currants just arent my vibe. In some households the fruits are blended so they have a smoother consistency, while others, try to maintain at least some of the integrity of the fruit.

The cakes would be set to bake and when they were done they’d be bathed in a mix of white rum and red label wine. The liquor was added to keep the cake moist and add a lil something special, despite having already been added during the mixing of the batter.

As I think of it now, I realise how much I actually remember. I think of my grandmother. I recall her patience with the process. I recall my annoyance and eventual excitement with it. I think of my mother with my son, and though he isn’t really into it, she likes having him in the kitchen.

You see, the Christmas cake is more than a menu item. Its more than a treat. It brings people together and creates memories you may not even realise you still had. It enhances and solidifies traditions because each recipe is unique to each household. Sometimes, it is unique to the members of that household as each baker has their own little twist. Recipes are often not written but are passed on as oral tradition and through this bonding experience. For those who are no longer in close proximity to their family members, the sights and smells involved in the baking process drum up nostalgia and longing. Sometimes the longing lingers, if you arent able to do the baking or be close to your loved ones. Ease and comfort only come if you are able to persuade someone to send you a cake. The cakes represent a kindness and are often gifted to friends and colleagues throughout the season.

This rich, dense, rum and wine soaked confection is so more than dessert, it is indeed an experience. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this Jamaican Christmas staple … let’s chat in the comments. If you’ve never had Christmas cake, let me know if there is an equivalent dessert on your menu.

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