Today in the shower I was mulling over my New Year resolution to give up sugar, something I will find all but impossible to do. I was considering the fruitcake I had made a couple of weeks before Christmas and wondering why so few of my relatives on my husband’s side were willing to try it. In a sudden revelation I realized fruitcake to Southerners is like lutefisk to Midwesterners, at least of Scandinavian set lineage! Suddenly all the wrinkled noses and polite excuses of “I’m really full” and “Couldn’t eat another bite,” make sense.
I have to clarify that my fruitcake, which is actually my great-grandmother’s recipe, is not the traditional fruitcake and deserves a place if not on the desert tray at fine restaurants at least far above the lowly place reserved for lutefisk on a Christmas menu! Great Grandma’s cake is a layer cake without those awful candied fruits in it. It contains dates, raisins, currants, and preserves (fig, strawberry, and orange marmalade), and pecans, of course. It isn’t one dense brick of cake either. It is a layer cake held together by a coconut lemon curd suitably sweet but offering the pleasant pucker of citrus and a coconut texture. I think it’s heaven, but I know I’m biased. Part of that bias comes from the memories I associate with this delicacy.
I remember Mema and Mama converging on our house where we had a double oven to make fruitcake before the holidays, and they made a lot of it. My grandmother would use a big enamel washtub and her hands to mix the ingredients together. The smell of the batter even before it was baked was sweet and redolent with blackberry wine, and it was lick-the-bowl good. When the thin layers had cooled completely, they were spread with the coconut lemon curd then stacked three high. Lastly, they were decorated on top with red and green candied cherries just to make them pretty. One year they left the cakes on our kitchen table overnight, and my dog Misty, a miniature schnauzer, nibbled the end of one of the cakes. My mother was outraged! The fruitcake tradition continued for years, but then stopped when my grandmother couldn’t manage to do what she once had. I think Mama just didn’t have the heart to continue making them alone after she and her mother made them together all those years.
A few years ago my mom came to my house for Christmas, and we tried to recreate the fruitcake of my childhood, but it had been a long time since Mama had done it, and back then she hadn’t been in charge. We tried to interpret the recipe which was vague at best. We discussed what we could find here in the Midwest, filling in amounts and flavors of preserves from what Mama remembered and from the “large jar of preserves” directions on the recipe. That year we must have done something wrong because we ended up with very little batter, only enough for one two layer cake. It was okay, anything with coconut lemon curd on it would taste heavenly in my opinion, but it wasn’t what I remembered. Mama tried to reassure me that it tasted wonderful, but I knew better. It’s odd how our taste buds have memories. We know when something is just right and when it is only an approximation.
This year I tried again. My mom couldn’t be with me this year, so I tackled the recipe myself with many phone consultations with my mom as I made my way through the recipe and the process of baking this heirloom. The phone calls were good because the recipe is one that needs talking through with a loved one. That’s part of the recipe I think. It is a cake that must be learned with the one who made it before you. Maybe Great Grandma and Mema intended it that way so we would be together to keep this tradition. This year when I made the fruitcake, I made it the right way. I had enough batter to make two cakes, one which was the test cake (I tested it and it was fantastic!) and the other which I saved for Christmas Eve dinner at Bruce’s mom’s house.
I don’t know why I expected anyone to set aside their preconceived notions about fruitcake to taste this cake of my childhood, the embodiment of love and special riches of preserves and dried fruits so hard to come by in winter at one time. In my family these cakes were savored and anticipated each year. Only my mother-in-law ate a piece that night, and I still have that cake. It is in the freezer as I write this. I can’t bear to throw it away, so I’ve decided to send part of it to my mom to see if I did as well making this fruitcake as she remembers from long ago.
I don’t know that I will make my great grandmother’s fruitcake next year. For me it was enough to figure out the recipe and bring an heirloom back to life along with the memories of those I couldn’t have with me on another holiday in the Midwest. I think more than the cake I was trying to feel close to my mom and brother and sister, just all my Georgia family. I miss them more than they could ever know, especially at the holidays. I wish I had been there to share a slice of fruitcake with them. They might not have liked it, but I know they would have tried it since it was a part of our family tradition, kind of like lutefisk is for Bruce’s side of the family.
I still contend that my great grandma’s layer fruitcake is FAR better than lutefisk, cod soaked in lye, then dehydrated and reconstituted for serving with cream sauce. Yikes! It’s kind of like fish pudding. No one actually likes it. Bruce says he does, but there would not be as many jokes about it if people actually liked it. Wait a second… I take that back. How many jokes are there about fruitcake? Okay, okay, I get it, but I still contend I would rather eat fruit and nuts baked in a lovely spiced batter than dried and reconstituted fish. Which would you rather have?