About the middle of October, every year of my 18 years in my family home, (assuming those years when I was too young to remember or experience it) my mother engaged in a ritual of earth-shaking importance.
The ritual began with a trip to Ironwood, Michigan, approximately 24 miles from my family home in northwestern Wisconsin. The purpose of the trip was to buy baking supplies. There was a long list: walnuts, dates, currants, golden raisins, and mixed candied fruit.
The candied fruit was always a source of consternation for my mother. She had a specific list of what she wanted and sometimes the right candied cherries, lemon and orange peel were not available. There were times when more than one store had to be visited in order to get the right combination. My mother was especially fussy about dates. More often than not, she bought dates with pits because she contended the flavor was better.
If you haven’t already guessed, these ingredients along with flour and brandy and various spices, were the basics in our family Christmas fruitcake. Now since those wonderful days of yesteryear, fruitcakes have become the butt of countless jokes.
The fruitcake ritual began early in the morning. All of the ingredients were assembled. The fruitcake pans, blackened by years of baking, were checked and carefully cleaned. My mother had a reverence for those pans. I wondered how many generations had used them and if, indeed, they were passed from mother to daughter, mother to daughter-in-law and then to granddaughters and on and on.
Once the pans were carefully greased with butter and powdered with flour, the fruitcake assembly began. Flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, butter, brown sugar, and dark molasses were combined. There has always been an argument among folks who make fruitcakes as to when the brandy was added: do you add alternately with dry ingredients or do you soak the finished fruitcake in brandy? My mother did a bit of both, adding some brandy in the mixing process and sprinkling the finished cake with just a little more when it was baked.
The spices, brandy, cinnamon and allspice, the candied fruit, dates and golden raisins, had a bouquet all their own. My mother carefully poured the batter into the pans to a specific height. When all of the pans were filled and the oven temperature was right (for some years the oven was wood-fired before my parents bought a combination wood and electric stove), it was time to put the cakes in the oven. My mother used the kitchen clock to monitor the baking time. One year, that did not turn out so well and the whole ritual had to start over.
When the house was filled with the smell of baking fruitcake you knew they were just about ready to come out of the oven. Once the pans cooled, the cakes were removed and carefully placed on racks to cool even more. When they were cool to the touch, my mother would give them another little dose of brandy, wrap them in cheesecloth, then wax paper, and then finally in foil. The fruitcakes were then placed in tins with lids to make sure that the cakes stayed air-tight for curing until Christmas Eve.
As a young boy, this ritual fascinated me. Once, after three or four weeks, I tried to sneak a little slice of fruitcake. After I got the tin open—not a mean feat for an eight-year-old—I unwrapped one of the cakes and, fearing the wrath of my mother, broke off just a small piece. In my zeal for that pre-Christmas Eve taste, I left a trail of crumbs and discovered my mother’s fury.
We don’t make fruitcakes like we once did: too much sugar and too much trouble. If we have fruitcake at Christmas at all it is one of those store-bought cakes that gets passed from family to family until someone bravely cuts it after it has lost all of its flavor and appeal. But I remember those days of the fruitcake ritual as some of my fondest memories of preparing for Christmas. I even remember the taste.