By the time I was old enough to boil water, my mother welcomed an extra pair of hands into her kitchen. At twelve, I was promoted to holiday cookie baker. However, my mother entrusted no one but herself with the baking of her mother’s Christmas jam cake. Think English figgy pudding meets American candied fruit cake.
According to Mom the Christmas season wasn’t upon us until the old fashioned Bundt brick was resting under the cake tent in her dining room cupboard drying out nicely for the big day. And every year, all but a slice or two of the dense block of nuts and dried-out cake dough managed to survive the entire two weeks of gluttonous jubilations. The cake, along with the half-eaten, mint jelly centered Whitman samplers, was always the last holiday fare eaten, sometime between the waning days of January and Fat Tuesday.
As it came to pass, the year I turned eighteen, Chef Mom gave me free reign over the Christmas Dinner menu. By then, I estimated, our mother had prepared over 23,000 meals; for her, the excitement of preparing a holiday feast had lost its luster. On this most high of culinary occasions, she abdicated her favorite whisk and mixing bowls to me.
These were pre-Martha Stewart-Paula Dean times, ya’ll, but like those culinary trend setters, I was ready to shake things up in the kitchen. The first item knocked off the menu was, you guessed it, the jam cake and the second item was the standard, ho-hum roasted turkey. Both were banished. In their place, I smugly announced to the family, we would be supping on lasagna on December 25. “She’s joking,” they said, “No turkey at Christmas? That’s madness. Heresy!” When the day of celebration of the birth of baby Jesus arrived, the lasagna was paraded around the dining room and placed at the table’s center among the yuletide side dishes my parent’s English and German ancestors had handed down to their daughters over the ages.
The diners grumbled over the absence of giblet gravy and mashed potatoes as every morsel of the lasagna disappeared. My sister still refers to that particular holiday supper as the Christmas Lasagna Mutiny. But, as I recall, no one asked for a slice of jam cake.
They were right, my ancestors and my family, and I was wrong. Christmas isn’t Christmas without our holiday memory comfort foods like the roasted turkey and all its trimmings or simple sugar cookies shaped as Christmas trees and angels. The act of baking the cake, rather than eating it, was Mom’s way of celebrating the season’s traditions, the experience which connected her to warm memories of her childhood Christmases. Since she passed away, I’ve baked the cake at Christmastime to honor her and her mother and to connect with my own Christmas Past.
Come January, when the days are their darkest and the cold wind pits freezing rain against your face, I invite you over for a cup of coffee and a slice of Mary Dulcie’s jam cake. Don’t worry, there will be plenty left over from our Christmas celebrations for you to enjoy.