Why do we cook? Well, to eat, of course. But also to entertain. To learn. To remember. To kill an afternoon. To bond cross-generationally. To use up crap that's left over in the fridge. To make the whole house smell like a holiday. To do the thing that's always been done.
Rose Prince, writing in the Telegraph, gets at some of the more ambitious motivations behind cooking in a remarkably clearheaded and engaging review of the Delia Smith Christmas cake kit.
Smith, the UK's biggest-selling cooking author, has done something that's either miraculous or sacrilegious, depending upon your viewpoint: She has condensed the British Christmas cake, a traditional gastronomic marathon that results in a festive and highly ambitious fruitcake, into a three-step method that uses prepackaged ingredients.
Prince weighs in on the "sacrilegious" end of things, writing: "'Delia put my Christmas in a bag!' I sob. Her preparedness leaves me as redundant as a lollypop lady in a field. Her sack of utility has all the appeal of the cat’s pack of IAMS. I head for the brandy bottle (not included) and resolve to open my mind, delve into the bag and put Delia’s near enough fait accompli to the test."
Prince's point: The prolonged stirring, prepping, and general fussing that goes into making a Christmas cake isn't work to be avoided. It's deeply satisfying. Hell, it's even fun: The cake kit "is designed to take the pain out of making traditional cakes. But where exactly is this pain? There is none in my memory, in actual fact I have loved every moment of this tradition. There is charm even in the smaller pleasures: choosing the best ingredients, measuring and not forgetting the all-important maceration of fruits in brandy—the essential bit of course being the chance to mop up extra hooch in a pre-advent toast. But these moments are erased by Waitrose's 'prepared ingredients pack.'”
Prince doesn't see the job of making a Christmas cake as toil—she sees it as soulful, festive, and meaningful. Her essay is a wonderful (and seasonally relevant) counterpoint to the idea that faster and easier is necessarily better.
Now does this mean that we need to spend eight hours making a cake in order to truly experience the holidays? Possibly not. But getting the family and friends together and baking off a batch or three of some special cookies over the course of an afternoon, fortified with hot cider and cocoa, seems to be a hell of a nice way to embrace the meaning of the season.
Image source: Waitrose.com