Fruitcake Evangelism

This article was originally published by Jennifer Strange on her blog, Strangers in a Strange Land.

Photograph by Jennifer Strange

The women in my family like fruitcake. For real. Maybe it's just because eating the family recipe inspires us to tell the same stories again and again. Because I make it just like my mother made it, just like her mother made it, just like her mother made it. But we don't just enjoy making it or eating it; we enjoy the stories about it. So we make it and eat it.

I remember my mother making the fruitcake in our yellow-and-brown-flower-wallpaper kitchen from the recipe she had written down from her mother's card. Three pieces of paper from a small yellow pad of paper, trifolded into her brown recipe box. Perfectly stained and fragile from so much use.

I remember my mother giving my sister and me a talking-to one year before she walked into the liquor store with us to buy the brandy.

I remember my mother stirring it quickly and quietly.

And now I make the fruitcake. Every year. These days, I double the recipe because I need lots to share: one large loaf for the family and mini loaves to give away. Fruitcake lovers tend to be quiet whereas fruitcake haters tend to be loud, but most fruitcake haters I know have never had good fruitcake (and some have never had any fruitcake at all). So it seems that makers of fruitcake either must either hide their wares under a bushel (no!) or share them with evangelical fervor. Thus, I have decided to become an evangelist for fruitcake. Because everyone (especially my brother-in-law who requires more prayer, for he has yet to refrain from making disparaging remarks while the rest of us groan and ask for more) needs to know how wonderful it is.

The key to the fruitcake is the brandy. My mother and her sisters like to remember their mother's nightly ritual of pulling back the foil and adding a little more brandy until the day of the last all-brandy bite. The first sizzling pour sets it, and the regular therapy until it's all gone avoids the cliché: a brandied fruitcake has a moist kick, and that's the kind of fruitcake you want.

The recipe below will make two loaves, but I always double it to make one large loaf and 12 mini loaves.

First, gather the ingredients for Grandma's Rich Dark Fruitcake:

3/4 C butter
1 C orange juice
3 C sifted flour
2 t baking powder
1 t salt
2 t cinnamon
1/2 t allspice
1/2 t cloves
1/2 t nutmeg
1 lb chopped candied fruit
1/2 C candied pineapple
1/2 lb whole candied cherries
1/2 lb raisins
1 lb dates, cut in large pieces
2 C whole pecans
4 eggs
1 3/4 C firmly packed brown sugar
1/4 C molasses
Apricot brandy

Then preheat your oven to 275.

Melt 3/4 cup butter and let it cool. Pour 1 cup liquid (we always use orange juice) and let it sit to get to room temperature.

Prepare to combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, spices) in a large bowl. But first, for the love of my mother, truly sift your flour. Sifting flour requires a quiet mind, lest you fling the sifted flour outside of your bowl. Pay attention to the soft mound it's building. Listen to the gentle scrape of the sifter foot against the mesh screen. Try to imagine measuring the air you're manipulating into the flour. Cooking is science: the art of paying very close attention.

Then add those weird candied fruits: 1 pound chopped candied fruit (usually called "fruitcake mix"), 1/2 cups candied pineapple, and 1/2 pound (1 1/4 cup) whole candied cherries. Your grocer will sell those in the produce section even though they quit their fresh produce days a long time ago. News alert: my mother's younger sister informed me this year that she remembers her grandmother putting citron in the fruitcake as well. Watch out, world. That new ingredient is definitely going into next year's fruitcake.

Then add the raisins, dates, and pecans. Our original recipe calls for 1 pound raisins and 1 1/4 cup (8 ounces) dates, cut in large pieces, but my mom always cut the raisins by about half and added that many more dates; I do the same. Our recipe also calls for 2 cups of nuts, and we always use pecans. If your father-in-law grows pecan trees and regularly offers you quart-sized bags of whole pecans pre-shelled and cracked, you'll want to use some of those from the freezer. But I hear that grocery stores also sell these kinds of things for those who need them.

Mix to coat the fruit and nuts with flour and spices.

Then set that bowl aside and get out another bowl for your liquids, beating 4 eggs until foamy. If you can find a cute small person to wash his hands and help, do. My second son usually volunteers at this point in the adventure.

Gradually add the 1 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar, and beat that until well combined with the eggs. Then blend in the other liquids: 1 cup orange juice (which hopefully is room temperature by now), ¼ cup molasses, and ¾ cup melted butter. Stir quickly in case your orange juice is still a little cold and your butter is still a little warm, because you don't want to cook the eggs.

Pour the liquids into flour-fruit mixture and stir until well combined. This will give your biceps a real workout. Aforementioned small person will not be able to provide much help with this step, though he will want to with a unique form of holiday-inspired desperation. So hand him the spoon. After a quick try, he will give the spoon back and leave his angst behind for action figures. His help was great while it lasted.

At this point, you have a beautiful bowl of goodness. Bask in its glow.

Prepare the pans now. The recipe as written will fill two 9 x 5 x 3 loaf pans. My grandmother always lined them generously with foil so that she could easily wrap them and pull them out of the pans after baking. Spray the foil with oil and coat with flour. Turn the batter into the pans, filling to about 3/4 full.

Bake at 275 for 2.5-3 hours. A knife inserted into the center will come out clean when it's done, but it can stand some more cooking if needed. It's hard to go wrong here as there's a big window of "yeah, still really good" with fruitcake.

But when you're ready to commit, pull your fruitcakes out of the oven and immediately pour fruit brandy over them to your sizzling delight. We always use apricot brandy, and my dear husband was good enough to go get more after I used everything I had this year giving my loaves their first drink. Cover the loaves with tea towels and return periodically to pour more while they cool. You can't really go wrong here. Tell the people to make coffee and plan to sit a spell whenever they eat some.

Let the larger loaves cool thoroughly before removing from their pans. Don't forget to pour in more brandy when you check how cool they are. While visiting, pour more in the smaller loaves too. I usually pour a little more brandy every hour for the first few hours, and then a little more. Meanwhile, make your list, because you'll want to share these loaves with people. There's the friend who will live-tweet her receipt and first tastes. There's the other friend who will chuckle about how you sent her one again even though she really doesn't like it. There's the mother of a longtime friend who will text later to say she is in jail for getting a DWI and that her guard says he'll get her out more quickly if I'll send a loaf of what got her in there. There's the family.

In my case, the family is the real reason I make fruitcake. Because they want to eat some at the holiday and I have pledged myself to make it. Because they want to tell the stories again of my grandmother and great grandmother making it, and they need a reason to do so. Because they want to tell my brother-in-law to hush so that they can just smile and murmur and have another cup of coffee.

But I love the evangelism too. When the USPS worker asked me if I had illicit materials in my packages, I asked if fruitcake counted. (Should have brought an extra loaf for her.) But it's a kind of good news, our fruitcake. A shared recipe and a shared story that we wait for every year. A complex spice cake full of sweet surprises. So I make it for our family and send it out. How beautiful are the hands that open it and smile at the first whiff of brandy, that go quickly to make a hot cup of coffee or tea.

Photograph by Jennifer Strange

Jennifer Strange is a wife, mother of three sons, writer, editor, Twitterer, and annual maker (and eater) of fruitcake. She contributes somewhat regularly to this blog, which she also serves as assistant editor, and her poems have appeared most recently in The Other Journal and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume IV: Louisiana published by Texas Review Press.

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