Christmas cake

December 22, 2006

“Would you make us a traditional English Christmas cake?” asked my very dear friend, with whose family I will spend Christmas Eve.

“Yes, of course,” I said, even though the request came in early December and if a Christmas fruitcake is to be good, if should be made no later than September.

When I first came to live in the United States, I couldn’t understand why fruitcake was such a joke. It was something I loved. Then I tasted the local version, and (all apologies to my adopted country), I understood why. The American version is extremely sweet, glutinous, overloaded with glace cherries, angelica, citron, and so on; and the bought version has a chemical taste.

An English fruitcake contains raisins, currants, sultanas (unobtainable in my region of the U.S., and no, golden raisins are not the same thing), a small amount of candied cherries and lemon and orange peel; and rum and brandy. By the time it’s aged, with the help of regular drinks of rum and brandy poured over it, it’s rich but not over-sweet. A week before Christmas, it’s coated with a layer of marzipan, and a few days later, it is frosted with Royal icing (powdered sugar, egg white, and lemon juice) and decorated with tiny figurines of snowmen, Father Christmas, and so on. It is placed on a cake board, something you can buy easily in England at this time of year but not in the United States; then it’s surrounded by a paper cake frill, something else unobtainable here, so I made a reusable fabric one many years ago.

When I was little, I’d carefully separate the marzipan from the cake and the white icing, give the marzipan to my father, and eat the cake and white icing. Since I’ve (sort of) grown up, I scrape off the white icing and eat the cake and the marzipan.

My cake hasn’t had enough time to grow into its role. It’ll be okay but not stellar. And it’s been many years since I made and iced a Christmas cake; the icing, which I did last night, is way too sweet. I should have put in fewer egg whites and more lemon juice. However, it looks pretty and brings back childhood memories, and since mine were happy, scraping off the frosting won’t make a difference.

Please to remember

November 5, 2006


Please to remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

In 1605, a group of English Roman Catholic conspirators were discovered to have stored some 1,800 pounds of gunpowder in a cellar under the House of Lords in the British Houses of Parliament. The idea was to wipe out King James I of England (VI of Scotland), his family, and most of the aristocracy (the Lords) by putting a match to the whole thing during the State Opening of Parliament.

One of the conspirators, however, was concerned that some of those who would be blown up were Catholics and wrote a letter of warning to Lord Monteagle. On November 5, 1605, the cellars were raided, and Guy Fawkes was discovered and arrested. Under torture, he revealed the names of his co-conspirators, who were rounded up or killed trying to evade capture. In January 1606, Fawkes and a number of the others were tried and found guilty of treason. They were hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Guy Fawkes and the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 are remembered every November 5 in England with fireworks and bonfires on which effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned (gruesome entertainment for children, when you think about it). One of the best parts was tucking potatoes at the base of the bonfire to bake in the embers. By the time the fireworks were over, the potatoes were cooked. The skins were charred and you always burned your fingers, but no baked potatoes have ever tasted as good as those.

In the days leading up to the 5th children used, when I was growing up, to haul the effigies around on makeshift carts or pushchairs (strollers), chanting, “Penny for the guy,” and collecting money for fireworks. I don’t know if they still do.

Fresh fruit and veg

July 18, 2006
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Something I love in London (and miss in Washington, D.C.) is buying my fruits and vegetables from a greengrocer whose stall is on the sidewalk like this one in Turnham Green in west London. This man ambled into my shot and appears to be pondering the contents of the stall. I hope he’s thinking that replacing fish and chips and bangers and mash with some of the huge variety of fresh produce available here would help his waistline.

Eyeing London

July 17, 2006
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The London Eye is on my list of things to do sometime when I visit my hometown. The day I took this picture would have been perfect for a clear view from 135 metres, but of course everyone else had the same idea. It’s efficiently managed—rather like a ski lift, it’s a perpetual process of replacing the group returning with the group departing—but it still would have taken up more time than I wanted to give up on this occasion. There’s an official site if you’re interested in booking advance tickets online (and saving 10 percent), but for interesting information, Wikipedia is a better bet.

Old and new

July 16, 2006
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Blackfriars Bridge is a railway bridge over the River Thames in London. The first structure was opened in 1864, but as time passed, it was not strong enough to support modern trains, so a replacement was built. However, the support columns of the old bridge remain, which makes for the kind of surrealistic view that I might have dreamed.

Royal Holloway College

July 15, 2006
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The University of London is a collegiate university, and this is Royal Holloway, one of the colleges (no relation to Holloway, the famous women’s prison). The college was founded in 1979 by Thomas Holloway, who made his fortune—several million pounds sterling of it—in patent medicines. He was looking for a philanthropic enterprise, and the college, which was originally for women only, was the suggestion of his wife Jane. Royal Hollway merged with the University of London’s Bedford College (also originally a women’s institution) in 1985, 20 years after both colleges began to admit men.

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The architecture was inspired by the sixteenth century Chateau of Chambord in the Loire Valley, and the effect of Renaissance blended with Victoriana is completely over-the-top, but to my surprise, I found myself liking it for its sheer abandon and audacity.

The Gherkin

July 14, 2006
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This building, in London’s financial district and towering over the nearby Tower of London (which you can’t see in this picture), is known as “The Gherkin”—gherkin is a pickled cucumber—and less widely as the Crystal Phallus, a play on the famous Crystal Palace, site of the Great Exhibition of 1851. To me it looks more like a rocket waiting to launch.

The Gherkin, home to the Swiss Re reinsurance company, is the second tallest building in the City of London (an area of a square mile) and the sixth tallest building in the whole of London. The architects were Sir Norman Foster and former business partner Ken Shuttleworth.

According to Wikipedia, in December 2005, The Gherkin was voted the most admired new building in the world based on a survey of the world’s largest firms of architects, as published in 2006 BD World Architecture 200. On the other hand, in June 2006, it was nominated as one of the five ugliest buildings in London.

Tastes differ. I like it.