Very Happy Holidays
THEY SAY THAT, along with nostalgia for foods like meatloaf and fondue, we’re in the midst of a fruitcake revival: the holiday delicacy about which no one is ambivalent. Fruitcake seems to either delight or repel. If you’re in the latter camp, it may be that you haven’t tried the homemade variety, and odds are there’s a recipe out there to suit your taste.
Many countries and cultures have a unique version — Italian panforte, German stollen and Swiss birnbrot come to mind. The Indian version is full of spice, the Caribbean is soaked in rum, and Romanian and Bulgarian cakes typically contain orange zest and ground poppy seeds.
Fruitcaking may have begun with the Egyptians, and was certainly a part of Roman culture. Pomegranate and pine nuts were mixed into barley mash. Honey, preserved fruits and spices were added in the Middle Ages, and the cakes spread across Europe. In the 16th century, sugar increased the shelf life of the dried fruits. Alcohol was added in the Victorian era, and the cake became a holiday staple in Britain. Revivals aside, some of us haven’t known life without fruitcake.
The Christmas cake tradition in my family began at least 100 years ago. In rural Saskatchewan, with 12 children and the Depression to contend with, my great-grandmother found the energy and resources each year to churn out a four-tiered version, decorated with candy and adorned with a festive topper. My grandmother, who has been making fruitcake since 1946 — the year she married — shares the story. “After the crop came in, Dad always went to town to get the fruit and nuts for the cake, and that was always something special,” she says.
“It was better than a gift. It took hours to cook; you had to be careful with the old coal stove and keep the right temperature to cook the cake evenly.”
One of my sisters has been learning the ropes, and each fall she and our grandmother gather over a weekend around a giant bowl and a wooden spoon. The recipe is from The American Woman’s Cookbook, a staple in many households during WWII (and originally published pre-WWI). As with anything made by a grandparent’s hand, however, it’s what’s not listed in the recipe that makes the end result so good. My sister has made careful note of the extra fruit and walnuts, the jar of tart homemade crabapple or chokecherry jelly, and the cup of strong coffee added by Grandma.
The batter is divided into six deep cake tins, a mix of round and square, that will eventually be distributed among the family. My sister bakes three in her oven, and Grandma the others.
Later, almond icing is rolled out to fit the cake, which is finished with decorative wrapping and ribbon. When my cake arrives in the mail in early December, it’s whittled away each day with cups of tea, and it takes every ounce of willpower to ensure that a morsel remains to be enjoyed on Christmas Day.