Last week was the Garden Media Guild Awards, and I tarted myself up (boldly – if I say so myself – in orange) and took myself up London to see if I would win anything for this year’s labours. I sat on a table of people hauled together by the force of nature that is Ann-Marie Powell, where it’s fair to say we had some fun. And I got shortlisted, for three awards: environmental, blog and journalist of the year. Three times I went: ‘oh! oh! oh!….ohh…’ for alas, it was not my year. I toyed with bitter and twisted, but it is hard to maintain when you genuinely admire the writing of the people who won the awards you were up for (Annie Gatti and Mark Diacono), and it is pretty wonderful to be noticed enough to get shortlisted at all. So I laughed a lot, I toasted the winners with only a slightly wistful look on my face, I hobnobbed and networked like a good ‘un and I went out for a delicious meal after at Moro. Fun, fun, fun.
Home again, home again the next day, I let a little self-indulgent disappointment seep in. Best to temporarily give in to these things, I reckon. Touch the flame and feel the burn. And suddenly the one thing I wanted to do was bake. Put my mind to something simple and repetitive. Gardening, baking, sewing, all ways of ordering the world when I’m feeling out of joint, putting things methodically and carefully back in their place. Creative, sure, but requiring no great mental leaps. Nicely steady too, after those little episodes of risen heartbeats. And quite fittingly it was not just any old cake that was crying out to be baked, but the mother of them all, the Christmas cake. A proper project.
Despite being a pretty keen baker I had never made one before. We always go to my mum’s for Christmas and mum makes a mean Christmas cake, but this year I am being the grown up. We are doing Christmas this year, they are coming to us, and it seemed only right that I should step up, take responsibility and bake the damned cake.
I’m not going to give you a recipe for Christmas cake – there are Delias for that sort of thing – but I will tell you my spin. It involves damsons. Everything has involved damsons this year, since our vast crop from the allotment tree. I bottled up my 2010 vintage damson vodka in August, when I needed the jars to make my 2011 vintage. The 2010 vodka-soaked damsons (I hope you’re keeping up) have been in a big jar ever since, waiting for me to do something suitably grand with them. So I soaked all the other fruity ingredients in damson vodka, and then added the sozzled damsons, just chopped in half and stoned, as the big, juicy ‘glace cherry’ element. For the nuts I stuck to almonds, with their stone-fruit affinities, and I lobbed another couple of tablespoons of damson vodka (plus flour, sugar, eggs, and spices of course) into the mix before baking. We all stirred it and wished for good things (most probably lego- or star wars- or lego star wars-based things where the children are concerned, but I wouldn’t let them tell me).
Four hours it baked for. Such a satisfyingly long time. And yes of course: spicy, wafty house clichés. Now I’ve started down this damson-themed road it feels kind of right to stick with it, tho Im pretty sure putting vodka onto a cake is not really a thing. But hey ho, let’s have the courage of our convictions, and even though it’s a Christmas cake, it is only a cake. So it is getting regular doses of damson vodka, I will use damson jam to stick on the marzipan and – oh hell, why not? – I might even go for purple icing.
Soaking, measuring, stirring, wishing and breathing in spicy wafts. Baking therapy on a day of little sighs and little smiles.