Turman Capote and I have a shared history. We had loving spinster aunts as partners in fruitcake preparation. When I taught a high-school course called the American Short Story, students’ reactions to the old-fogey ways Capote related in his A Christmas Memory were not ones of delight. But I was thrilled to revisit my childhood.
It’s the time of year when I buy things at the grocery store that I would normally never allow past my lips. Some candied fruit (I don’t even want to know how that is accomplished), a lot of sugar, butter, nuts, disposable baking pans.
This is a result of a lifelong habit of eating fruitcake at Christmastime. My mother baked the dark fruitcakes for as long as I can remember. She chopped all the fruit by hand, added nuts that either my grandmother or my Daddy had picked out of the shells, and that I had picked up from underneath the trees at home, and filled the house with a delightful smell including vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
Mama made these cakes and gave them to family and friends. Her gifts were generous, a full recipe baked in a tube cake pan. They were huge! Every year the search was on to find a store selling the round tins which would hold these 5-lb treasures.
Once I was grown, I became a recipient of the heavy gift in the tin. Mama would always have ours ready to take home at Thanksgiving and we would savor the treat throughout the holidays.
Jim found a way to improve on Mama’s recipe. We would remove her foil or waxed paper wrapping, substituting cheesecloth. The cheesecloth would soak up the brandy Jim added and make the cake more moist. Yes, that’s it, moist. Once when Mama came to visit us at Christmas, I served dessert. She remarked, “This is GOOD fruitcake. Who made it?” “I made it? Are you sure?” “Well, I don’t know. This tastes much better than the one at my house.” We never confessed the alteration.
Mama gave a cake to anyone who she thought would like them. Only when I started following in her footsteps did I realize what a gift a fruitcake was. The time, and expense, to bake these was no small matter. A few years ago, a cousin said, “You know your Mama always made me a dark fruitcake at Christmas. I always took it. But I couldn’t stand those things.” She lowers her voice when she uttered the words “dark fruitcake,” as it she were speaking of something evil. Now that I think about it, I bet Mama realized Charlotte was unappreciative, but she was one of those people who would have been hurt had Mama not given her one.
I’ve found some shortcuts to Mama’s process. I sometime buy nuts already shelled, and bake the concoction in small foil pans. Once the cakes are cooled, they are ready to wrap for presentation to appreciative friends. I know fruitcakes are the punch lines for many jokes, and I know we are all more conscious of our diets these days, but most reactions I get to the fruitcakes I share are of the “oh, I love this – it takes me back to Christmas of my childhood” type. And when I take a plate of sliced fruitcake to social gatherings this time of year, it’s always emptied.
If your mouth is watering for a trip down memory lane, here is Mama’s recipe.
- Mama’s Stirring Fruitcake
- 1 lb candied cherries
- ½ lb candied pineapple (white)
- ½ lb candied pineapple (green)
- 3 pts shelled nuts, coarsely chopped
- ¼ lb raisins (⅔ cup)
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ lb butter
- 4 large eggs
- 1 cup self-rising flour
- 2 teaspoons vanilla flavoring
- 2 teaspoons almond flavoring
- 2 teaspoons cake spices
- Cream butter and sugar, add eggs one at the time and beat well. Add flour and spices and beat well. Add fruit and nuts. Pour into a large greased pan and place in 375 degree oven (note that she found 300 degrees in her oven to be better). After baking 15 minutes, stir. Do this a total of 3 times. After 3rd time, pack in tube cake pan and bake 15 minutes longer. Let stand in pan for 15 minutes before turning out.
My recipe notes:
I reduce the nuts to about 4 cups.
“cake spices” seem to be unavailable these days, so I use: 1 t. allspice, ½ t. nutmeg, and ½ t. cinnamon
I sometimes use 3” x 5” loaf pans to give as gifts. This recipe fills five of those. The plate pictured above the recipe shows one of those small loaf pans sliced. So the whole recipe is five of those!
Note: An internet search will yield numerous links to Truman Capote’s story, analyses of that work, and even audio files for your seasonal listening. It’s worth the time.