Mrs. O’Reilly’s Christmas Cake

The picture on the left is the result of a long project by one of our volunteers at Point Ellice House, Jennifer Brown.  The following is her story on how she was able to create a current version of Mrs. O’Reilly’s Christmas Fruit Cake:

I have always thought it would be fun to try out some O’Reilly recipes, especially cakes and other sweets.  This October I started my search for recipes for the Christmas season.  I always make a fruit cake called Yorkshire Spice cake for my family and thought that making Mrs. O’Reilly’s fruit cake would be a good project.

I started looking for recipes in the historical information binders at Point Ellice but didn’t find recipes.   I tried the Victoria Public Library BC Room with no luck.  So I visited the BC Archives and searched a few microfilms of the O’Reilly Family papers.  I did find some recipes but not Mrs. O’Reilly’s fruit cake.  Then I had a bit of good luck:  a copy of an old book (unpublished) of Mrs. O’Reilly’s recipes was found in the files, and it had the fruit cake recipe.

And now the real challenge began, deciphering a recipe from Mrs. O’Reilly’s ‘shorthand’.  The recipe is very brief:  it doesn’t include the size of pan to use or the oven temperature or the baking time.  I wasn’t sure about a few of the ingredients:  what do Victorians mean by a “sultana”?  what is “Powder Spice”?  How many ounces in a Victorian pint of milk?  Are those large eggs or medium eggs?  What is meant by “mixed peel”?  Is a Victorian teaspoon rounded or level?  Many, many questions.

I spent a lot of time pouring over several resources: the unpublished book mentioned,  Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (published in the mid-1850s), and my grandmother’s 1938 Five Roses Cookbook.    I also dug through my old cookbooks to find a cake with similar amounts of ingredients to determine a pan size.  And, yes, I used the internet to find out what “Powder Spice” is.

In mid-November, I finally made the cake.  It is now in a cool spot wrapped in cheesecloth soaked in sherry.  Mrs. O’Reilly probably used brandy.  We look forward to tasting it!

For a copy of Jennifer’s recipe, click here.