Tonight we have two choices for scintillating posts: Either the story of the Christmas cake or a self-pitying whinefest about how our planned trip was called off, Chickadee is only slightly better, I am now sick, and Monkey was looking pretty peaked in front of his dinner. (Which would—in and of itself—not be so bad, except that his demeanor didn’t change when I removed the pasta and gave him ICE CREAM. Gee, do you think he’s sick?)
Yeah, I think the Christmas cake story is the obvious choice.
When Otto and his siblings and his cousins were growing up, there was a special cake one of his grandmothers always made on Christmas morning. This cake is spoken of with great reverence amongst Otto’s family. “The Christmas cake,” they’ll say, and then pause for the smallest of sighs.
“What IS it?” I’d ask. “Why is it so good?”
“I don’t know,” Otto admitted. “It’s just… good. And we only have it on Christmas.”
I’ll confess, when Otto and I dated the first time ’round, I heard about the cake but didn’t pay much attention. I did have a vague memory of it, this time, when he brought it up. And this time, it was with great ceremony that he announced to me that I was about to truly become a [fill in his last name here]. Because this time? I was to be privy to the recipe.
Yes, we were scheduled to spend Christmas morning with Otto’s clan, and his assignment was to bake the Christmas cakes. According to Otto, the ring on my finger entitles me to know the recipe which is so closely-guarded by his family. (And he did mention that one year his youngest brother’s girlfriend was given the recipe and that brother was the one who got all bent out of shape about it. They’re still together. I hope she holds that over his head for a really long time.)
The week went by and before we knew it, Sunday morning—Christmas Eve—had arrived, and the cakes needed to be prepared. It was decided that I would head to church on my own while Otto did the baking; then we’d go to the evening service together, and the cakes would be taken care of in plenty of time. I left the house without a second thought. After a week of having Otto around, it was starting to feel like he was always here.
When I got back, there was a covered bowl of dough on my stove top. It looked… decidedly unrisen. It was sort of chilly in the kitchen, so I turned the oven on and went to find Otto.
“You finished the dough! I turned the oven on, cuz it’s sort of cold in there. I think that’ll help it rise. How long have you been done?”
“About an hour,” he replied. I mentally reviewed the carefully-written recipe card. It did say to allow an hour or two for the dough to double.
We had a brief chat about how cold it was in the kitchen, and I said again that with the oven on it’d probably help the dough, and then I went back to the kitchen to make a pie I’d planned to take on our trip (the one we’re not on). Otto joined me in the kitchen and we continued talking, and when I took down my sugar canister he looked… I can’t quite put my finger on it. The closest I can offer is to say that he looked at that canister as though he’d never seen it before.
And that’s fine, except that while I was gone he was baking a cake. A cake that calls for sugar.
“Hey, did you find everything you needed while I was gone?” I asked. “Did you know I keep the sugar up here?”
“I just used the bag,” he said.
Well, I’d just bought a bag of sugar to refill my canister. So he’d found that. No problem. I finished with the canister and went to put it away.
“So you found the bag in there?” I gestured to the pantry door across the kitchen.
“No, I just used the bag in there,” he answered, pointing to a closer door that leads to shelves of various items. None of which, as it happens, are sugar.
At least, that’s what I thought as I froze and considered this.
“Show me the bag you used?” We opened the pantry and Otto handed me a bag of powdered sugar. I’d forgotten it was there. I started to laugh.
“That’s sugar!” he said. “It says so right on the bag!”
I was halfway through trying to explain to him that yes, it’s sugar, but not the same and maybe this was why the dough (which we’d checked again, and was exactly the same size, still) wasn’t rising, when I noticed that behind this bag was a container of flour.
This container of flour must’ve come from the very back of the cabinet. I had a vague recollection of putting it into the cabinet 5 or 6 years ago. It was not, obviously, the flour I normally use. If I’d known it was still in there, I would’ve thrown it away.
“Did you use THAT flour?” I asked, pointing to the container.
Well of course he had. It was right there by the sugar, after all!
We checked the dough again (still flat) and discussed the facts at hand. Years-old flour and approximately half the sugar called for. Fault to remain undetermined; he should’ve paid attention when I made cookies the other day (and know the difference between confectioner’s and granulated sugar), I should not be keeping ancient ingredients tucked into the back of my pantry.
No matter! Otto went back to the store for more yeast, and I dumped out the dough (it fell into the trashcan with a decided CLUNK) and started over again. Otto came back and we had the new dough resting on the stove top in no time. Later, when it had MAGICALLY risen (funny how that works, when you use the proper ingredients), Otto handled the dividing and filling and rolling and baking. Later that night, we took the cakes with us and I glazed them once we arrived at our destination.
On Christmas morning the cakes were greeted with much glee, and Otto would credit me for making them this year, and I would point out that he did the artistic part.
Now, what you have to understand is that the hype could not POSSIBLY live up to the reality, after listening to Otto and various family members touting this cake for so long. I sat down with a slice and tasted it.
It was… okay. I knew from preparing it that it wasn’t going to be an overly-sweet concoction; it doesn’t take much sugar, and I knew from the yeast and waiting for the dough to rise that it would probably be more like bread than cake. By the second bite I was thinking that it was surprisingly good, really, for something that had at first seemed ordinary. And by the third or fourth bite I was marvelling at the texture and how perfectly understated the whole thing was.
I copied the recipe down yesterday, and Otto reminded me that it’s okay for me to have it, but I am not allowed to share it with anyone, and it can only be made on Christmas. I drilled him with a series of what-ifs (can I make it some other time, as long as I don’t give the recipe out? can it be eaten for dessert instead of for breakfast?), but I was just giving him a hard time. I want to bake it with him every Christmas, while I run the mixer and he tells me when the yeast mixture looks spongy enough. I don’t intend to make it any other time.
Because, really, half the fun is going to be saying, “Remember that time when you tried to make the Christmas cake with powdered sugar and ancient flour?”