When I was a very young bride in 1975, my mother gave me a treasure box full of gold.
Actually, it was a small metal box full of recipes, neatly typed on 3x5 index cards. The box was full of family favorites, foods I had grown up enjoying. On the back of several of the recipes, she had hand-written special memories and stories about particular dishes – which made them even more valuable to me. Some were familiar tales that I’d heard before, some notes told me the origin of the recipe or who had first made and shared the dish, and one was a secret that made me laugh (and I’ve never told)!
In the back of the box I found 3 cards clipped together – my grandma Belle’s Fruitcake Recipe.
Every Christmas in my memory, there’s been a homemade fruitcake on the table. It’s one of the traditions that I hold dear. Dense with chopped fruits and nuts, rich with homemade ingredients like apple jelly and fig preserves, and thoroughly soaked with Belle’s homemade blackberry wine, the Fruitcake is a delicious combination of flavors and textures. The top of the cake was always decorated with bright red and green candied cherries, yellow wedges of candied pineapple slices, and whole pecans that came from the trees in the yard. As a child, I was not a big fan of the fruitcake itself, but I became pretty good at stealing the pecans off of the top! As I grew older, I discovered how delicious these homemade cakes really were (“store-bought” ones never came close, EVER), and I began to look forward to the distinctive flavors as part of the Christmas Traditions we enjoyed in our family.
My mom had written about watching Belle and my great-aunt Lula preparing the fruitcakes when she was a child. Preparing the batter is a 2-day process that involves a good bit of chopping and mixing; Belle and Aunt Lula would tell stories, talk, and laugh as they worked together at the kitchen table. Chopping the candied fruit took hours because the pieces had to be very small and the fruit itself was very sticky. The recipe makes a huge amount of batter – so much that they would mix it all up in a big white dishpan instead of a regular mixing bowl. My mom also said she would sneak the pecans off the top of the finished cakes when she was a little girl, I guess that’s an inherited trait!
Ultimately, making the fruitcakes was a time of preparation, sharing, visiting, laughing, catching up on family and community news. It was a labor of love and joy, wrapped up in aluminum foil, to be shared with everyone as part of the Holidays.
Aunt Lula passed away many years ago. My Grandma Belle is also gone; she died in 2008. My mother continued the tradition of making fruitcakes for several years, by herself.
I am not a great cook (that’s another blog post for another day!), but I have managed to be fairly successful with cakes, cookies, and pies. The past few years, I’d get that fruitcake recipe out of the box and think, “I should try this…” But I’d read the long list of ingredients and all the labor-intensive steps and feel overwhelmed. I’d tuck the index cards back into the box and tell myself I’d try it “next year.”
This year, I celebrated my 60th birthday. I realized that THIS YEAR would be the ideal time for me to finally continue this Christmas Tradition, but I wanted a little help. A couple of phone calls later, I’d enlisted my mom’s help and invited my sister Becky to join us in The Great Fruitcake Tradition. We set a date to meet at mom’s house with all our ingredients and tools. I can’t recall ever being so excited about COOKING something in my whole life!
Now about bringing all those ingredients and tools…. Hmmmm. The list of ingredients was long. Some things were easy to find, like sugar and eggs. Others were a little more difficult to find – like fig preserves. Becky & I agreed that whoever found that first would purchase enough for both of us. I discovered some at Whole Foods. To retrieve enough jars, I literally lay down on the floor so I could reach all the way in the back of the bottom shelf. This attracted a bit of attention; as I was lying face down in the aisle of the store, a sweet young lady asked if I was “ok” ; I guess she thought I’d collapsed or something! I laughed as I clutched my collection of the rare fig preserves and I told her that for my next trick, I’d get myself up off the floor!
Sadly, one ingredient no longer exists at all. Belle always made her own blackberry wine every summer, picking the wild blackberries on the farm. (That’s another favorite memory, picking blackberries…) My mom used the last few drops left of Belle’s homemade wine a couple of years back. Becky & I substituted Manishewitz Blackberry wine, which came fairly close to tasting as sweet as Belle’s homemade.
The appointed day arrived and Becky and I both arrived laden with our ingredients, pans, and big pots for steaming. This stuff took up most of the room on the kitchen table!
Today’s candied fruit comes already chopped. We wondered what Belle and Aunt Lula would think about that… would they be relieved at not having to chop up the sticky cherries and pineapple? Or would they disdain the modern, “lazy” convenience? To be honest, I was quite grateful that we didn’t have to chop all that fruit ourselves! The first day we dredged the fruits in flour and put the spices in the wine to “steep” overnight.
The second day, we started early. We mixed the batter. It was quite stiff, full of eggs, raisins, cherries, nuts, flour, sugar, apple jelly, fig preserves. My mom wasn’t kidding, it made a huge amount of batter and I mixed mine in a plastic dishpan.
Next we prepared several pans and filled them. The cakes do not rise much, so we could fill the pans fairly full. Rather than being baked, fruitcakes are steamed , so we wrapped the pans tightly with aluminum foil and stacked them on a rack in the big canner. After steaming for several hours, the cakes were done.
Once they were steamed and cooled, we poured a bit of wine over each loaf to soak. Once the cakes were turned out of the pans, we decorated the tops with pieces of colorful cherries and pineapple and some whole pecans.
At our family’s Christmas dinner, I was happy to put one of my finished fruitcakes on the table.
The verdict: Mama & Daddy declared it delicious! I think Belle and Aunt Lula would be really proud of the fruitcakes Becky & I made.
I look forward to continuing the Fruitcake Tradition in coming years. I felt strong ties to my mother, my grandmother, my great-aunt, and to other family members I remember from Christmases Past as I mixed the batter, then later sliced the cake. I look forward to sharing in Christmas Future one of the great traditions from our family.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll prepare myself a cup of tea and a thin slice of this delicious fruitcake! Care to join me?