As the Christmas season approaches, I round up the ingredients for my annual Christmas cake project. I discovered I have all the spices needed, but I’m a little short on Napoleon brandy and grape jelly… A trip to the LCBO fixed that, and the jelly seems mostly for color anyway.
In the search for the recipe, I discovered that we have roughly 15 cook books in two locations, and four recipe boxes. The recipe boxes vary in size from tiny.. about six inches across.. to large.. about ten inches across and eight inches deep. The recipes are mostly written on lined paper, but there are also recipe cards, recipes cut from newspapers and magazines, and recipes written on the back of church bulletins (!). The dominant recipe card says something about zucchini and chocolate, although cheese and chocolate is another dominant theme. Hmmm… There may be a social history project lurking here!
The interesting fact is that I think we have only tested about 1 in ten of these recipes over the years. But we appear to have collected them from every source imaginable. Which got me wondering… why do we collect every interesting recipe, yet lack the life space to try them all? There’s something of Advent longing hidden here.
But maybe collecting recipes is a way of living into the future… it’s a hopeful pursuit. We hope that one day we might have time to try all these wonderful foods. Ha! Not gonna happen. Ah well.. brandy problem solved and on with the show.
My recipe is one I obtained from my sister twenty years ago. It’s a light cake: I never preferred the dark ones. It’s loaded with fruit and nuts, and I have already begun marinating the fruit in a half cup of brandy. Later this afternoon I’ll mix the ingredients, and the two loaves will find their way into a hot oven around 3 PM. After that, they will cool overnight before receiving their first baptism… with more Napoleon brandy. I know, I know — this is not a typical baptism experience and gives fresh meaning to “filled with the spirit.”
Did I tell you about the Napoleon brandy? I don’t drink hard liquor, but the smell of this stuff is incredible. It’s aged in oak for seven years: and yes you can get older (more expensive) brandy. The most obvious scent to me is apricots, and the golden color gives the same impression. (It runs around 40% alcohol, so you could probably use it in your lawnmower and for removing that sticky film left behind when you rip the label off the new camera you will get this Christmas.) Soaking the loaves in spirits helps the flavors ripen and mature. But this means you have to add a weekly practice to your disciplines: bring the cakes out of the cool location they are stored in, open the sealed bags and dribble fresh brandy on top. By Christmas time the flavor .. and the aroma.. is heavenly. Take a small sip of brandy and you feel the fire on your tongue.
These cakes are a lot of work, and they are far from instant. Good lesson here: maturity takes time. Make that investment over time and the best things show up. We shouldn’t really cut into the first cake for four weeks, but I’ve developed a habit of eating about a square inch of cake each time I add some brandy. It’s important that I know how this thing is turning out — what my guests will eventually appreciate (yes, any excuse will do!) All the best things improve with age: wine, brandy, and even people. They are a sacrament of fruitfulness and the care of God for the world, and a help to hospitality.