It has a terrible reputation and a whopping 450 calories per slice. It’s often called a brick or a doorstop. My dear husband confused it with a box of fire starters. But it’s none of those things. Friends, we need to show more respect for….The Fruitcake.
(That means showing me a little respect, too.)
It’s the joke of the holiday season, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I love fruitcake. I savor the sticky, chewy, sugary fruit bits that stud my teeth with candied jewels. I love the thickness of each slice, which feels like a slab of cement in a man’s hand. I love the stained glass look of the ingredients shining through a molasses-colored sponge soaked in artificial flavorings. I love topping a (very) small square with a mound of whipped cream; a cloud to brighten a citrusy brownie in disguise.
Yet just try to find a good one.
This week, I’ve searched high and low and near and far for an authentic fruitcake. The few stores that carry them stamped the seasonal dessert with a “use by” date of 2015. That competes with the shelf life of a Twinkie, so I left the confection in the display with the other 50 that remained untouched.
I called bakeries and different sweet shops to see if I could pay somebody to make one. “We decided against it this year,” most of them said. A few laughed.
Oh, no, dear bakers. You are mistaken. There’s always one nut in the area who will pay dearly for a slice of Christmas past. But since these pastry chefs have chosen to turn their noses up, I’ll put my head down and make my own.
Do I have a professional KitchenAid artisan stand mixer? Why, of course not! Do I have a finished kitchen outfitted to support such an endeavor? Why, of course not!
But I do have a vintage recipe box that contains the handwritten instructions from a few Brown and Keeney women, and I intend to make those classy ladies proud. I can do this!
Every Christmas, my mother would open the folded square of yellowed notebook paper to reveal the secrets of her mother’s famous Nut Cake. Two words — not one. It’s a cake and it contains nuts. (Even my grandmother tried to hide her embarrassment by changing the name from Fruitcake to Nut Cake.) And every year, my mother would send a prayer up to the great kitchen in the sky to ask for a little help in turning this harder-than-childbirth cake into a Christmas spectacular. Then, she would begin grating, sifting, chopping, stirring, pouring — and praying — as it was delivered into a 300 degree oven for the rest of a wintery afternoon.
More years than not, my mother would pull the Nut Cake from the oven, where her face would fall just as the cake had. Deep red maraschino cherries always sank to the bottom, creating a cake full of craters that resembled a tire stabbed with a hunting knife. My mother referred to it as The Keeney Curse. Only her mother, God rest her soul, was allowed to make a perfect Nut Cake. And if we tried, well, we’d pay for it. As in 35 dollars’ worth of wasted groceries.
I would stand near Mom’s shoulder, or in time, over it, to avoid the disappointed expression on her face. She would linger at the counter for a moment, steaming her pores with the heat of holiday hell, and then she’d toss the cake — sometimes fluted pan and all — into the trash. My father, sitting in the breakfast nook smoking his life away, would scream like a girl.
So now it’s my turn. I’m pulling out the Nut Cake recipe, and I’m trusting my new LG oven to bring great tidings of joy. But before I scoop dark raisins or crack the first of four eggs, I’ll tilt my head toward the heavens, close my eyes and silently ask my mother to once again, help me keep all my cherries in the air.
Dedicated to Mary Keeney, who passed on December 12, and to Betty Brown, who passed on December 18.