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 Then I had a bit of good luck: a copy of an old book (unpublished) of Mrs.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I spent a lot of time pouring over several resources: the unpublished book mentioned, Mrs.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!