An ode to fruitcake: memories of Christmas past

The poor, maligned Christmas fruitcake. Favorite target of late show hosts, club comedians, and your cousin Bud. Behind this torrent of abuse, though, are real fruitcake fans. I am one of them, not only because it’s great by a crackling fire with tea or coffee, but because of the warm memories it stirs.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving my mother would rifle through her recipe box until she pulled out a stained card with one of my grandmother’s recipes. “Mum’s—the best” was written in the upper right-hand corner. She would bring out the largest mixing bowl, flour, sugar, molasses, spices, nuts, currants, and candied fruit galore and began the arduous process of making the annual fruitcake. For a child this was all quite magical, little cubes of mystery fruit in yellow, lime, red, and orange; candied pineapples; and cherries—bright, bright red and the green ones that looked like a Chernobyl byproduct.

The fruits and nuts were turned onto a piece of a brown paper (from a grocery bag) until a tall mound was formed. The stand mixer whirled around as the wet and dry ingredients were combined into a spice-scented batter. The tube pan was greased, probably with Crisco, and lined with wax paper, then greased again. Finally, the fruits and nuts were folded into the batter until it reached the constancy of heavy mortar. The mixture was spooned into the pan, which was then set in a rectangular baking dish with a bit of water, and gently placed in the oven.

Fruitcake takes a long time to bake—anywhere from 2 ½ to 4 hours. Children, therefore, must don their coats and go outside to play.

In the afternoon, when the fruitcake emerged from the oven to sit on a cooling rack on the kitchen table, my brother and I would rush in from the cold, tracking snow all over the floor to my mother’s chagrin. The kitchen would be warm and toasty and redolent of cinnamon and cloves and the sweetness of molasses and fragrant fruits. Later that evening my mother would gently remove the heavy cake from the pan and wrap it in cheesecloth. And this is when weeks of eager anticipation began, a secular Advent.

Several yards of cheesecloth, drenched in whiskey, were wound around the barrel-sized fruitcake until it was swaddled in its alcoholic robe. Wrapped again in aluminum foil then placed in a heavy plastic bag, it was stowed on the shelf in the coat closet to “cure.”  Every week Mum would bring the fruitcake down from its perch, remove its outer wrappings, and brush it with more whiskey. Then back in the closet it went.

You may be able to imagine what it’s like to be a kid and know there was an exotic, adults-only thing in the house that you were not allowed to touch. Only the countdown to Christmas and visions of toys under the tree were able to distract us from touching that forbidden fruit(cake).

Christmas morning arrives, gifts have been plundered, wrapping paper is cleared. By the afternoon, Christmas dinner is ready—turkey and all the trimmings. Before long, my grandmother and uncle and aunts and cousins arrive. Finally it’s time for dessert. Fruitcake.

My mother proudly walks into the dining room, the fruitcake gloriously topping a milk glass cake stand. She cuts through one of the sides and removes a piece. It is thick and dense with fruits and nuts and just a hint of whiskey. We eagerly wait for the plates to be passed, hoping our slice will have those neon red and green cherries. It’s our own Tiny Tim moment in the Steel Valley of Western Pennsylvania.

My mother and her mother have long passed. I am now the owner of that “Mum’s—the best” fruitcake recipe card. It’s in my mother’s handwriting; holding it makes me feel close to her, like she’s in the kitchen with me. I measure out raisins and currants and nuts and glacéed orange peels and cherries and begin the work of generations of women in my family. Fingers crossed that I can do adequate justice to their legacy.

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