Heirloom Recipes & Interview: Sharen Orbell

Now that we have hit December it seems the count down to Christmas is really on. It's generally around this time (if your organised sooner) that wives, mums, grandmas and aunties are pulling out their tried and true Christmas recipes - puddings, fruit cakes, shortbreads, rumballs, truffles - the list can go on. These recipes may of been passed on from generations to generation - from grandmothers to mothers to daughters and onto granddaughters, they are truly precious and should be treasured. They are lovingly prepared, baked, iced and served to the eagerly awaiting family at Christmas time, or if your luckily enough to snaffle a taste before the big day. These recipes can be thought of heirlooms, because that is what they are... family heirloom recipes. I make a few recipes for Christmas that have been passed down to me - A yummy Christmas pudding from a elderly family friend, moist fruit cake from my mother-in-law and my favourite recipe - Rumballs (which I tweaked so I can eat it - HERE) from my mum. I hope to one day hand write these recipes to pass onto my kids (when I have them).  

I have a special guest today who has lovingly made over a dozen fruit cakes every year for a number of years to send to her dear family and friends. It's an act of pure love and a need to preserve a well loved family Christmas cake recipe. Her name is Sharon Orbell and she has been featured in this month's edition of Australian Good Taste Magazine (on sale now).

Sharon on left.

I work at Victoria University in Melbourne where I have worked for a very long time since I left working in publishing. I have three kids. My oldest son Taylor is in the army and living in South Australia. My daughter Emerald has just finished her VCE and plans to be an art curator after going off to Uni. My youngest son Antonio is 12 and wants to either be a chef or James Bond – depends on the day.

I have cooked since I was a child, first as the hands of my grandmother. Cooking is one of the things I do for family to tell them how much I love them. Food has always been a way in my family we celebrate, nurture and show care. We have a long table, once an old printer’s table, we can sit 14 for dinner and we often do.

Sharon and her son.

My husband says that I am really a woman from another century. My other passions are gardening and sewing. Sewing I don’t have time for much anymore. However I find time to garden and have taken over our backyard and front yard and filled them with flowers – particularly tree peonies and roses. The flowers in the magazine article were from my garden.

   Why do you believe in keeping your family Christmas cake recipe alive by continuing to bake and send it out each year?

Put simply – it makes people happy and reminds them how much I care. I don’t think I could stop now because there is an expectation around it. I would feel too guilty.

Our memories and a feeling of heritage are important to me. I think it helps ground us to remind us of our past. My mum died quite young of cancer and when I’m baking the Christmas cakes I feel like she is part of this. We talk about nanny (mum) and we talk about my childhood and it gives my kids a sense of place. When I sent a copy of the magazine to my mum’s brother, her girlfriends and my elderly Aunt the all rang to talk about their own memories and to have a good laugh and cry. It is worth doing just for that. This is part of my children’s inheritance and more valuable than anything material.

    How many Christmas cakes do you send out each year?
This year was a big year – I have just finished my eighteenth cake. I thought I’d finished but my mum’s best friend Aunty Bev saw the article and rang demanding a cake! So maybe 19 cakes. I send one to my step-dad (promised mum), one each to my brothers who weigh their cakes to see who is more important. So there are cakes going out to Sydney, Albury, Billinudgel, Singleton, Adelaide, Perth, Ourimbah and Kingscliffe.

    How many hours/days does it take to make all your Christmas cake orders?
I don’t really see them as orders.  I see it as a list of family and friends. It’s hard to get on the list. I suppose this year I have spent about 40 – 50 hours over a month of weekends doing this. I try to make at least three at a time. I must say whilst I love the smell wafting through the house whilst the cakes are balking I have to really psych myself up to prepare all the tins.

    Have you had any disasters over the years in your yearly cake bake off?
No not really. I have been doing it for so long.

   What are your secrets to the perfect Christmas cake?
Good alcohol, stewed apple and glace ginger. The alcohol preserves and makes it rich, the apple keeps it moist and the glace ginger gives it a gentle heat. You also need the cake to rest for at least three - six weeks and develop flavour before you eat it. We have eaten cakes and Christmas puddings a year or two years after they are made. A two year old vintage pudding is the best I have ever tasted.

   What are your fondest cooking memories as a child?
My mum - on a Sunday afternoon – baking to relieve the stress of being a single, working mum with teenage kids. She would cook all afternoon and then the desperate calls would start for us all to come home and eat all the food she had prepared – and to bring our friends. Her favourite was a chocolate cookie which my brother and I cruelly nicknamed doggie dunnits. We still laugh about this.

The other would be making and cooking dumplings with my dear friends Nini and Lee. Children everywhere followed by 200 dumplings for dinner.

.    Do you bake any other goodies for Christmas?
We make Christmas puddings, shortbread biscuits and glazed ham.

   What’s on your Christmas Menu this year?
Not definite yet but all the usual mentioned above – grilled prawns marinated in coriander, cumin and lime; garden herb falafels; slow roasted tomatoes with garlic confit; star anise spiced duck breast; lots of vege and everyone’s favourites. Everybody puts in requests the week before

 What are your tips for a stress free Christmas?
Is there such a thing? I write a menu and stick it on the cupboard and try to follow this. I also try and start at 4:00 am whilst everyone is still sleeping.


Australian Good Taste has just launched a new club called AGT Heirloom Recipe Club
The Good Taste Heirloom Recipes Club is a place for you to record and share your precious family recipes.

To find out more about the Heirloom Recipes Club and read Sharon's feature, and her famous Christmas cake recipe you can  pick up the December issue of Australian Good Taste magazine which is currently on sale for only $3.95.

To submit a recipe to the club, all you have to do is gather your beloved family recipes, snap a few pictures and upload them to the site: http://www.taste.com.au/kitchen/clubs/agt+heirloom+recipes+club,27

Additionally, to find out more information or to join the conversation, you can visit Australian Good Taste facebook page: www.facebook.com/australiangoodtaste

What your your treasured family recipes?

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