Waikato Times reporter Denise Irvine visited Tamahere’s St Stephen’s Christmas Festival and found a treasured Christmas cake recipe passes the test of time.
When Sarah Bouquett sailed to New Zealand from England in the late 1800s, she brought her Christmas cake recipe with her.
Sarah was 23, a young bride, and she and her wheelwright husband came from Cornwall to settle in the South Island.
Sarah’s recipe had been treasured by subsequent generations of her family, and she would probably be delighted that it’s still being made and admired in the 21st century. At present it’s in the capable hands of her great-granddaughter, Glenda Matthews, who bakes if for the annual fundraising Christmas Festival at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Tamahere on the outskirts of Hamilton.
The St Stephen’s Festival has been a Waikato fixture since 1986. It’s led by parishioner Christine Pickering and a team who spend months making beautiful Christmas handcrafts to sell. The women also provide refreshments and organise carol singing in the church as part of the progamme, which runs Monday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm until December 24. Carol singing at 11am and 2pm daily.
The festival’s culinary treat is currently the best value for money in town. You get to play ladies (and gentlemen): you sit at a suitably decorated table in the church hall, and for five bucks you get a slice of homemade fruity Christmas cake, a piece of delicious buttery shortbread, and tea or coffee, or a cold drink. It’s all served on fine china, there is a proper teapot, and each plate is decorated with a sprig of fresh holly.
Today at Tamahere, as well as soaking up the Christmas spirit, we’re getting the story of Sarah Bouquett’s rich, moist recipe from Glenda, a festival stalwart.
Glenda usually makes two big cakes for festival refreshments, more if required. Many other volunteers bake as well, some of them also using precious family recipes. About 35 cakes and hundreds of batches of shortbread are needed during the event, which runs from December 6 until December 24 and attracts thousands of visitors.
Glenda is on the co-ordinating team – she’s been involved for “a good 20 years” – and she sits at a table in the church hall with Bev Greene, another team member, to talk cakes. Bev had made shortbread for the volunteer’s morning tea today, but she says this is simply a recipe from the Edmonds Cookery Book and the real shortbread experts are Janet Hannah and Margaret Chapman, who make superb buttery squares for the crowds.
Glenda’s been baking her great-grandmother’s Christmas cake all her life. She watched her mother and grandmother do the same. The latest good-looking effort is on the table in front of her.
“I’ve always made it and it never fails. It is moist, it doesn’t crumble, and it cuts perfectly, It’s easy. You just put it all in a bowl.”
Glenda notes that it has no eggs or sugar and instead uses a tin of sweetened condensed milk (which became available in the late 1850s). She wonders if the cake was developed at a time when eggs and sugar were in short supply. Bev Greene says that, in contrast, the cake she makes uses 10 eggs. Bev’s recipe is from her grandmother, Grace Miller, and is called Nana’s Herald Winning Christmas Cake. She thinks the recipe won a prize in the New Zealand Herald.
Glenda says about the only change she’s made to Sarah’s recipe is to substitute the vanilla for a good splash of brandy, although, when she’s making it for the festival she sticks with the vanilla.
She bakes the cakes a month in advance, giving them time to mature. She wraps them in baking paper, then newspaper, and turns them occasionally during storage, just as her foremothers did.
Glenda and Bev also make Christmas-themed handcrafts to sell at the festival. They work all year on this with other women at Christine Pickering’s home. The satisfaction, she says, lies in raising funds for the charities supported by the festival. Typically about $18,000 is distributed, and this year the Red Cross, Save the Children, Bible Society and Hospice Waikato will benefit. Extra money may be given to other organisations.
Everything is lovingly done by a generous group of people. And, with more generosity, Glenda shares her family’s Christmas cake recipe with the Waikato Times, passing over a freshly handwritten copy. Sarah Bouquett’s cake may be enjoyed by many more people in the years to come.
Sarah Bouquett’s Christmas Cake
1 cup of cold water
900g mixed dried fruit
1 tsp vinegar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 cups flour
1 standard tin sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla essence (or a decent splash of brandy)
1 tsp almond essence
Put water, fruit, butter, vinegar and spices in a saucepan. Stir over a low heat until the butter has melted. Turn up the heat a little and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and let cool. When fruit is very cool (this is important), stir in remaining ingredients, mixing well.
Spoon into a well greased and papered deep 20cm square tin and bake for 2-3 hours in a slow oven at 150 degrees Celsius (depending on your oven; Glenda doesn’t use fan bake). Test with a skewer.
Ice with your favourite icing – a brandy butter one is good.
More Christmas recipes here – another Christmas cake, and Christmas mince pies.
(Denise Irvine’s article originally appeared in Your Weekend magazine, December 13, 2014. It is not currently online.)