Ah, it’s approaching that time of year, which where I come from is called ‘Stir-it-in Sunday’. That, for those who think I’m developing delusions of being a lexicographer (go look it up!), is a day, usually in late October, when people traditionally make their rich fruit cakes or ‘Christmas cakes’. The theory is that you make them on the last Sunday in October so that all of the ingredients have time to develop deeper flavour in the weeks leading up to the big day. As the cake is being made, each member of the family should stir in their special wish before the mixture is placed into the cake tin ready for baking. Then you wrap the cooked cake in foil or baking paper to keep it from going stale and then place this, reverently, into an air-tight tin.
Some people (as my FAB hubby’s grandma used to do) like to uncover the cake once a week and add copious amounts of alcohol – brandy, dark rum, aged whisky or sherry depending of the favoured tipple – to keep everything properly moist inside the cake. The liquid plumps out the dried fruit and makes for a really good, very rich fruit cake to be enjoyed as part of the festive celebrations. Yummity, yum, yum YUM! Ahem.
Of course, one can take these things a little too far.
I’m sure you wouldn’t, would you?
And you can be doubly sure that I wouldn’t.
Because, you know that I’m, like, a kitchen goddess, right?
My mint spies are, simply, to die for!
What’s that? You’ve never heard of ‘Mint Spies’? WOW! Have YOU got a lot to learn about being a kitchen goddess!
Oh, alright, I will reveal the secret code word’s meaning.
When I taught seven-year-old children at Quarry Bay School in Hong Kong, I had a very high percentage of Chinese children in my class. For them, English was often not just their second language, but frequently their third or even fourth language that they were having to learn. And yes, these kids were SEVEN years old! It never failed to amaze me that such young children could cope so expertly with the vagaries of learning three or four different languages simultaneously. And cope they did – brilliantly. Most of the time. Until they met me.
I love word play.
‘NO!’ I hear you shout in disbelief!
It’s true! Almost nothing delights me more than a silly pun or play on words. Almost. I mean, c’mon, some of those cat videos on YouTube are just hilarious! And that one of the ducklings that get blown over in the freak gust of wind… well, THAT makes me giggle more than a good pun, of course. I’m only human for goodness sakes!
But I digress. Again.
I had a little boy in my class – let’s call him ‘Alan’. My FAB hubby loves the name Alan. He wanted to call all of our children Alan. Even the girls. It’s a bit of a standing joke now in the family – he’s progressed to thinking of a feminine version of the name, ‘Alana’ – and each time a new grandchild has come along he’s referred to them as either Alan or Alana for most of the time.
But, once again, I’m off track.
What is WITH me today?
ANYHOO… Alan, little boy in my class, who speaks, what, seven different languages – one for each year of his life so far. I kid you not – he spoke Cantonese (of course!) and Mandarin because his father was Hong Kong born of Mainland parents, as well as Japanese and Korean because his mother held dual nationality; then he also spoke Indonesian and Tagalog thanks to having grown up with domestic helpers from Jakarta and the Philippines. And he’s been getting to grips with English since he arrived at our school some eighteen months before. So, my hat is not only off, but sweeping the floor as I bow to his superior lexical diversity.
It’s approaching the end of the first term in my class and he’s sort of aware that I say things that he finds a bit, well, odd. I make silly jokes all the time, which confuses him. He knows I’m not mocking him and he too has learned to love the silly word play – he revels in it in fact, because to him all words are just damned silly. So the fact that his teacher thinks they’re worth playing around with is a delight to him. And the end of term means a big Christmas party, woo hoo!! We go through a long list of party foods that people like to bring and I’m organising who’s going to bring what as their contribution. Alan hasn’t volunteered anything yet and when I ask him if perhaps he could get him mum/helper to make some mince pies he’s puzzled.
‘Mint spies?’ he asks tentatively, trying to match up in his mind’s eye how pale green coloured James Bond’s might somehow relate to a food that he’s being tasked with bringing to the Christmas party. ‘What is ‘mint spies’, please, Mrs G?’.
So, since then, we’ve always referred to the delicious confection of sweetened mixed fruit and seasonal spices wrapped inside delicate short-crust pastry as ‘Mint Spies’. I mean, who the hell wouldn’t?
So… now, where were we?
Ah, yes, I am a kitchen goddess. I remember. Vaguely.
Such a goddess in the kitchen that I actually make my own mincemeat too. None of that overly sugary, cloying confection that you buy in the supermarket for me and mine, no siree! When it comes to Stir-it-in Sunday, I not only make the Christmas cake, but I also pot up about half a dozen jars of home-made Lizzie’s Special Mincemeat too.
I haven’t always done this – just in the past seven or eight years – because, I must confess, before that I hadn’t actually realised that it was POSSIBLE to actually make it yourself. I’d always bought my mincement at the supermarket, ready made, like it was born that way (à la Gaga) in jars with labels stating increasingly adventurous ingredients. Initially, it was just your normal Robinsons’ mincemeat – no fuss, no frills, no fancy stuff here, thank you very much. That did the trick for many years and had done the trick for many years before I’d ever started making them, because that’s how my mother made mince pies too. Before we went to Hong Kong in ’92, I’d started trying Sainsbury’s special mincemeat, with added whisky or better still, Drambuie and noticed improved flavour each time.
Then of course in Hong Kong, I could only get Robinsons’ mincemeat in the NAAFI which used to stand on the corner of Queensway, before the Handover. For five years that’s what we had each festive season. And then after the Handover in ’97, when the big supermarkets (Park’n’Shop and Wellcome) started stocking more Western produce, we were able to get such odd delicacies with our everyday shopping. I never once, in all that time, considered that it would be possible to actually make it myself, which with hindsight was remarkably slow of me.
It was only upon my return to the UK in 2005 that it suddenly occurred to me mincemeat could be made by ordinary people, it wasn’t a naturally occurring product and that was I could put whatever fruit, spices and alcohol I liked into my mincemeat. What a revelation!
So, what with my own recipe for the filling and my lovely short-crust pastry (which I learned to make as a teenager – it’s always great, because the secret is to keep everything extremely cold, fats remain in the fridge until the last possible moment, I even chill the flour and use water from the fridge too as well as making sure I’ve got VERY cold hands), my mint spies are truly a work of art.
You can only imagine how good the Christmas cake has to be then.
Christmas cakes are the most special of celebration fare. For me, they symbolise sharing the whole Spirit of Christmas more than anything else. The planning and preparation of this fruit cake are almost more important than the cutting and eating part, although I think that’s the bit I like most of course!
I have this ritual, where I make a list of the ingredients I need and then go shopping for them. When I get home, I put all the ingredients out on the worktop and then I get out all the equipment I need. And there’s a wHole lot of stuff needed – huge bowl, medium bowl and at least three small bowls, so that I feel like I’m in Momma Bear’s kitchen awaiting the untimely entrance of the golden-haired wild-child hoodlum, named ‘Goldie’.
Once everything is ready, I get the alcohol out.
Well, a glass of wine at this stage can’t hurt now, can it?
What’s that you say… but it’s only ten in the morning? No worries mate! (as my Aussie friends assure me) The alcohol is for the CAKE, not for me. Well, not all of it anyway!
Now, I’m going to take you back in time. We need a big-assed time machine here, like a TARDIS or that fantastic Time Machine that the boys in The Big Bang Theory managed to win in an online auction. Or the Doc Emmet Brown’s De Lorean from ‘Back to the Future’ or, and this is my particular favourite of course, Hermione’s ‘Time Turner’ necklace from ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’. I bought my daughter one of those because she, like her mother, is obsessed with all things magical from the world of Harry Potter. Are you ready? Let’s set the dial for late October, Stir-it-in-Sunday if you will, 1993.
Wiggly-wobbly, everything’s wibbly-woggly!
It sounds like someone’s playing the record backwards again…
I’m melting! I’m melting! (No, sorry, that’s a different movie… my bad!)
And BUMP! Here we are back in nineteen-ninety-three.
More precisely, we’re in the tiny kitchen of our twelve-hundred square foot flat on Robinson Road. Hong Kong apartments generally have kitchens that are unsuitable for cooking in, there’s just a couple of hob-rings for using sauce pans or, more likely frying pans/woks on and there’s no oven at all. Often, there’s precious little room for a fridge and food storage space is a joke. This is why there are so many great eating places in Hong Kong – or maybe the small, inappropriate kitchens are a result of there being such a variety of restaurants… it’s a chicken and egg thing I suppose! In any case, making such a culinary curiosity like a Christmas cake is going to be challenging in this Hong Kong kitchen.
We’d lived here now for about fourteen months and of course, when we moved in we purchased new kitchen equipment. Everything had to be new because the only things we brought with us from Blighty was the dining room table & chairs, our double bed and my study desk. And a few clothes of course. We’d sold absolutely everything else we owned so that we could afford to make that actual move.
So the oven in the tiny kitchen was not that old. I’d decided to get one of those new-fangled microwave/convection combined ovens largely to save space as it was at a premium. It had been good value and satisfied the requirements to cook food perfectly and we were generally pleased with it.
My domestic helper at the time had a habit of piling newspapers on top of the microwave – I had admonished her several times, but she kept doing it and frankly, I had given up moving them all the time because, well, I probably had bigger fish to fry. She also had mentioned to me a week or two earlier that the oven had developed a habit of switching from one mode to another, somewhat unpredictably. She said she’d been microwaving some frozen vegetables and it had started convection-cooking them instead. She swore she had not touched the controls, but I took her words with the proverbial pinch of salt because she had hitherto frequently made some rather far-fetched claims to cover her incompetence. I paid it no heed whatsoever.
So, it is Stir-it-in-Sunday and my FAB hubby is in another country (I can’t remember where- he was always galavanting off around the region *fixing* Amex’s computers or business models somewhere or another). Daughter Number Two is relaxing in Baguio Villas, Pok Fu Lam with her classmates after a sleepover at her friend’s house there. There’s just me, Daughter Number One and the two cats, Snuggles and Purr, having a nice lazy Sunday and making the Christmas cake.
Everything is properly prepared, all the fruit has been well and truly steeped in alcohol overnight and the cake has been stirred in, mixed up and placed into the convection oven to bake at a low temperature for about three hours. Washing up completed, I turn to Donna and say ‘Fancy a quick trip to Pacific Place? We can get some shopping done and then go to MacD’s for lunch’.
She is naturally delighted with my suggestion and having checked the cake, off we go.
Pacific Place was THE new shopping mall then. Bright, shiny, brand-spanking new, this cathedral of consumerism was where we spent a lot of spare time. For a start it was remarkably, uncannily clean and tidy all the time. I swear little robots emerged from behind secret compartments in the marble walls to swiftly remove any evidence of littering or strange smells, the place was so sterile you could perform open-heart surgery on the floor if you were so inclined. Fortunately, I never was.
We did our shopping and ate our trusty fast food in about an hour and then jumped into a taxi to return home well within the time-frame that my cake should have needed to be cooked.
As we entered the lift from the lobby, I turned to my daughter and declared ‘Phew! Who would be burning cheese on toast on a Sunday afternoon eh?’ because there was a frightfully unpleasant smell that I thought I had accurately described, coming from somewhere above us. Now, our flat was only on the first floor so the lift-ride didn’t take very long and when the lift doors opened, it was clear that the smell was in fact coming from our apartment.
We turned left out of the lift and squeaked in horror as we realised that there were smoke tendrils wisping out from under the door and from around the door casing. Grabbing my keys from my bag I started to open the door, hands fumbling furiously to work the alien lock. Finally, the door sprang open and a sight I shall never forget in a million years met my eyes: the short hallway was filled from the ceiling to within a foot of the floor with thick, acrid black smoke. The whole apartment was entirely filled with smoke.
‘Grab the cats!’ I shouted at Donna, as I raced into the smoke, trying to locate the trapped animals. ‘Then, get them out of here!’ I added as I disappeared into the kitchen where I could see the flames licking the oven door frantically.
‘Damn her!’ I exclaimed as I realised that the oven was on fire and this fire was being fuelled by the idly placed newspapers on top of the oven. There were blue sparks feeding the frenzy inside the oven and I have no idea what presence of mind possessed me at this moment, but I managed to turn the electricity supply off and pull the plug out of the socket on the wall, before turning on my heels and fleeing from the scene.
Donna had hold of Purr and had run with him into the lobby. I saw Snuggles crawling on his belly towards the fresh air and scooped him up as I dashed out of the door too. I slammed it shut behind me, mindful of the need to keep the smoke contained – this outer door was three inches thick and made of solid hardwood, it would likely withstand the heat for long enough to save us from the fire that would otherwise have engulfed us.
We banged on the only neighbour’s door and fell into their flat, blubbering about fire and needing the emergency services. At this point I realised that I had left my keys on the dining room table, where I had thrown them on the way to the kitchen. The firemen had to break the door down in order to get in and finally douse the remains of the fire. It cost me three thousand dollars to replace!
It had been a very sobering time. Fortunately and rather miraculously, apart from a ruined cake, cake tin and oven, everything else was undamaged. Both animals were checked over by the vet who declared they had no lasting injuries, although they, like the two of us, would have sore throats for a few days, from excessive smoke inhalation.
It turned out that the oven had flicked over from the setting I had put it onto, convection at 150 degrees for three hours, to microwaving on full power, probably shortly after we had left the flat an hour before. Bearing in mind that I was cooking the cake in a metal cake tin (as you do!) and that these elements do not function well with microwaves, it’s a wonder that the whole building wasn’t alight let alone the minimal damage that we got away with!
My Christmas cake and its excessive alcohol content has been a standing joke within the family for the past twenty years now. It took me a couple of years to pluck up the courage to make another one, but I’m glad to say that having learned some important lessons, my Christmas cake is back to being a guaranteed part of our preparations for celebrating the end of another year and the togetherness of my wonderful family.
I’m off shopping next week for supplies… somebody put the fire brigade at Def Con Four please…