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Posts Tagged ‘Fruitcake’

Time was, the Christmas season began after Thanksgiving. Macy’s Parade signaled the beginning. The next day, Christmas decorations went up, people began to shop and send out cards, and I would start making fruitcake. We had a festive month, full of good cheer, leading to the most magical day of the year. Those were the good old days.

At some point came Christmas in July. At least it didn’t detract from the true season. Then, almost unnoticed, an insidious malady began to invade our lives. Stores started to put out Christmas items before Thanksgiving. Black Friday became a day, not just to shop, but to storm retail outlets like hordes of anarchists. (Does “Black” refer to bruises?)

In recent years, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to get into the Christmas spirit. Is it stress—gifts to buy and wrap, plans to make, goodies to bake, the flurry of so much to do? Or is it the darkness of days growing ever shorter? But it’s always been that way. What changed?

Year after year, the commercial Christmas season inches up the calendar. Stores began to put out their tinsel in mid-November, then earlier, and earlier. Unsold Halloween candy is whisked off the shelves, to be replaced with Christmas stuff overnight.

When I give magazine subscriptions as Christmas gifts, come February, I get notices that it’s time to renew. Really? Two months after I bought them? The notices stop for a while, then pick up again in early fall, week after week, bugging me to renew NOW.

Last year before Thanksgiving, employees at Walmart were wearing Santa caps and reindeer antlers! “Bah! Humbug!” I said to one.

“I agree,” he said. “But they make us wear them.”

This year came the coup d’état. BEFORE Halloween, red and green shared store shelves with orange and black. I beat a hasty retreat, preferring to do without than be accosted by a too-early Christmas.

I spent Thanksgiving in Arkansas. That morning, my mother and I watched the Macy’s Parade on TV, the first time I’d seen it in years. Back in the day, the floats, balloons, and marching bands were the focus of the broadcast, with announcers quietly telling the audience what we were watching. This time, celebrities hogged the camera, gossiping with each other, occasionally referring to the floats and balloons in the background. What a disappointment!

I got home in time for Hanukkah and lit candles every night, which was comforting, but the Christmas spirit continued to elude me. My Christmas cards stayed in the attic. I put up no decorations, baked no fruitcake. The magazines sent threatening notices. December crept by. I was turning into Scrooge.

Was I to be visited by three spirits? As if in answer, a distant memory from elementary school crept into my conscious mind. I had been cast as Tiny Tim in our Christmas play because I was the smallest child in the class. I tucked my hair up under my cap, leaned on a crutch, and delivered my one line, “God bless us, every one!”

Well, Christmas was coming whether I wanted it to or not. I half-heartedly began to make preparations.

With the Winter Solstice, I had an epiphany. The pressure to begin the Christmas season earlier and earlier each year had the effect of shutting down my enjoyment. I resisted getting the spirit too early. Once past Thanksgiving, my suppressed enthusiasm remained bottled up. Do the retailers realize what they do to people when they try to cram Christmas down our throats in October?

I needed a visit from the Spirit of Christmas Present. It came in the form of my Christmas cactus. Eleven months of the year, this plant fades into the background. All summer, it sits quietly outside in the shade, getting water when it rains, demanding nothing. All it asks of me is to bring it indoors when frost threatens. Suddenly, it burst into bloom!

The days grew longer and brighter. I came out of my hole. I made lists and went shopping. The Christmas displays no longer offended me. I renewed magazine subscriptions. Baking fruitcake for friends and relatives and cookies for my grandchildren further bolstered my mood. I started wearing my poinsettia earrings and tacky shirts decorated with bells and holly, and listening to holiday music. I put up a tree.

What about the Spirit of Christmas Future? I’ve made an early New Year’s resolution. Next year I won’t let the humbugs spoil Christmas for me. I’ll stroll through unseasonably decorated stores with an air of detachment. The day after Thanksgiving—you won’t find me at the mall!—I’ll be in my kitchen baking fruitcake.

In the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one!”

(If you want my fruitcake recipe, you’ll find it here.)

Merry Christmas!

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People just don’t understand fruitcake. This time of year, when the fruitcake jokes begin making the rounds, I cringe. Every summer when I drive through Claxton, Georgia, the “Fruitcake Capital of the World,” I shake my head in disgust. I’ve considered stopping and setting these well meaning but ill informed people straight. I hardly call those white bricks of sugar, filled with stomach-turning green and red things, fruitcake. I make fruitcake. Real fruitcake.

I got started after receiving an inheritance from my great-grandfather. Grandad made it to 97, outliving three wives and a series of “housekeepers.” He wasn’t quite as bad as Henry VIII. He didn’t behead his wives, but he worried the first two to death and divorced the third in a era when divorce was not quite respectable. It was also not respectable to live with a woman without the blessing of marriage, so Grandad had “housekeepers.”

Grandad was a handsome young man.

His wives were out of the picture by the time I entered the world, but I remember a few of the housekeepers. One had a daughter who had no arms. I remember visiting one day with my grandmother. The girl was washing dishes. I was too small to look into the sink and see just how she did it, but she stood on one leg, her other foot in the sink working in the sudsy water. She wore slip-on shoes so she could slide her feet out easily whenever she needed them for hands. I assume she went to a special school. Her mother told her to show Grandma the necklace her teacher had given her. The girl stood on one foot, lifted the other to her chest and held out the necklace, the same way you or I would with our hands.

Grandad’s house

Years later, Grandad had a housekeeper around his age named Nellie. She and Grandad would sit on the porch together or walk down the road hand in hand. Once Nellie asked me about my family and was amazed that none of our many children had died. When she was young, she said, it wasn’t unusual for a family to lose several children. She told me about a sister who had died. “I really liked that sister.”

Then we moved to Florida. I visited the summer after Grandad died. Aunt Ora Mae was sorting through his effects and gave me a few of his things. Among them was a stained and tattered notebook filled with antique recipes, one of which was Sarah’s Fruitcake.

I have no idea who Sarah was. Apparently she was an acquaintance of whomever kept the recipe book. When I showed the book to Grandma, she didn’t recognize the handwriting, but she was sure it wasn’t my great-grandmother Rebecca’s. She surmised it had belonged to one of Grandad’s subsequent wives or one of the “housekeepers.”

I’m not sure what the standards of kitchen measurement were in those days, but Sarah’s instructions included “coffee” cups of this and that as well as “teaspoons” and “tablespoons” which I’m sure only approximated modern measures. In addition to raisins and other dried fruit, Sarah used citrons. I’m willing to bet they were actual home-preserved citrons, not those plastic green and red things which are passed off as fruitcake ingredients today.

That November, I made my first fruitcakes, shared them with family, and sent some to my grandparents. I used standard measuring cups and spoons and lots of dried fruits, no “citrons.” It was delicious.

I’ve made fruitcake every year since. I’ve modified and improved Sarah’s original recipe, but I still give her credit for what she shared with the unknown woman in Grandad’s life. Here’s the recipe I use now:

  1. Mix together 6 to 8 cups of dried fruit. Suggestions: raisins, golden raisins, diced figs and prunes, cranberries, currants, diced dates and apples, cherries, and pineapple. (I use canned pineapple, drained, of course.) Add 1 to 2 cups of broken pecans.
  2. Mix together and add to the fruit:

2/3 cup butter

1 cup honey (you can use raw sugar)

½ cup sour cream

3 beaten eggs

  1. Combine and add:

3 ½ cups flour (preferably whole wheat)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon orange peel

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cloves

To incorporate all these dry ingredients into the fruit mixture will be a test of strength, but it’s worth the effort. If the dough is too dry, add a little more sour cream.

  1. Line baking pans with parchment or waxed paper and fill 2/3 full. You can dress up the cakes with a line of pecan halves down the middle. Bake at 275 degrees until a toothpick come out clean.

I use 4 or 5 small loaf pans (7 ½  x 3 ¾). The number of pans needed depends on the volume of fruit and nuts. Cooking time varies by the size of pans. Cakes in small loaf pans take a little over an hour.

Try it. You’ll like it. And maybe next Christmas season, like me, you’ll cringe at those unkind “fruitcake” jokes.

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