Good cake, good wish

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This is the story of how Lillian Scott’s trusty Christmas cake from the 1920s has ended up in hundreds of Waikato households.

Cooking up Christmas: Raewyn Koppens (right) and Rosita General
Cooking up Christmas: Raewyn Koppens (right) and Rosita General

Lillian Scott was from Gisborne, she raised five daughters, passed on her Christmas cake recipe to them, and now it’s being made at Hamilton’s Sugar Plum Cake Company by the owners, Tamahere’s Raewyn Koppens and her partner Rosita General.

Koppens is Lillian Scott’s grand-daughter, the cake is a longtime family favourite, and this is the second Christmas that it’s been made commercially at Sugar Plum, writes Denise Irvine of the Waikato Times (not currently online).

Earlier this month, Irvine visited Tamahere’s St Stephen’s Christmas Festival and found another treasured Christmas cake recipe that had passed the test of time.

Early on a Tuesday morning before Christmas, Koppens and General are on the homeward stretch of rich, fruity cakes, and by Christmas Eve they’ll have done about 300, in various sizes, to meet their orders.

Koppens is at the production helm this morning, while General is occupied making sweet truffles that look like gorgeous little Christmassy snowballs.

Koppens says her grandmother’s recipe is perfect for their purposes. It’s simple, it works. “It’s about getting it down pat at the start of the season, and you don’t attempt to be clever.”

She’s tweaked it a bit in the alcohol department. Lillian apparently soaked her dried fruit in orange juice, and one tablespoon of “very medicinal” brandy.

“Not enough to do anything,” says her grand-daughter.

Sugar Plum’s fruit is steeped in a goodly mix of brandy, sherry and port, starting in October. Koppens says this gives the cakes plenty of keeping ability: “put plenty of booze in it and it lasts forever.” The steeping also makes the fruit fat and flavoursome.

The lovely thing about watching Sugar Plum’s production line is that it looks just like home-baking – as Lillian may have done it – only on a bigger scale.

There is real butter, eggs, sugar and spices, copious quantities of dried fruit, all the essentials of a good cake.

The big difference, though, is that a sturdy Vollrath mixer with a 10 litre bowl does the hard work. Koppens starts a batch, putting sugar and softened butter into the mixer bowl, adds the eggs, then a little of the flour in case the mixture starts to split, followed by the soaked fruit, and the rest of the dry ingredients.

The mixer copes effortlessly as its load gets heavier.

Koppens knows exactly when the mixture’s perfect, ready to be poured into lined cake tins, and go into a low oven for three hours. The cakes are later sprayed with more alcohol, carefully wrapped and stored. Before they leave the shop they’re finished with a wonderful topping of fruit, nuts brandy and apricot glaze, or fondant icing, then decked out with ribbons and cellophane.

I thought I might get to stir a cake at Sugar Plum, but no-one does that. That’s the Vollrath’s job. But I do indulge in the old tradition of trying a couple of teaspoons (or three) of raw mixture.

That probably happened in Lillian’s kitchen too. It tastes divine, the reward of all that long soaking of fruit and booze.

One last thing: how do they make a wish for each cake if they’re not mixing by hand?

“We put a good wish on all our cakes as they go out the door,” says Koppens.

Earlier story: Baking proves plum job

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