Some people consider fruitcake the worst gift ever. That's because they only know the store-bought version. The kind that hardens in a couple of weeks, then crumbles and disintegrates -- except for the red and green cherries, which have a half life instead of a shelf life.
It's these lumpen imposters that the unenlightened scorn as doorstops, fit only to be used as footballs or regifted. They belong in the same category as Cool Whip, cake mixes and McDonald's lattes. In other words, they're not the real thing.
At some point, we Americans decided that fast is better where food is concerned. We work harder these days for less pay -- if we're working at all. We spend less time with family and friends. Something had to go, and for a lot of folks, it was preparation time. And it takes time to create a good fruitcake.
My love affair with fruitcake began in the late 60s, a time when the old was being swept aside as irrelevant and women were being exhorted to "get out of the kitchen and into the streets." I was 16 that Christmas, an age when I counted every calorie. But when I rounded the corner into the kitchen one dark December afternoon, I stopped short. The sparkly yellow Formica counter was crowded with home-baked goodies: trays and plates of them. These had been gifts to my father, a family doctor who practiced in a working-class Seattle neighborhood. His patients weren't affluent, but they were grateful. So they baked.
I contemplated the holiday bounty, alluringly illuminated by the under-cabinet lights. Cookies in neat arrays, glittering slices of fruitcake, fluted mincemeat tarts. Other family members had sampled the cookies, but no one had tried the fruitcake.
I chose a moist dark slice, loaded with nuts, raisins and currants. I liked the heft of it, the aroma of rum it exuded. With the first bite, I was transported back in time -- way back. The cake, so rich and complex, tasted medieval. It evoked deep contemplation, reverence, chant. Nothing hasty.
I'd spent my teens choosing the low-cal option while my peers chowed down. But after experiencing that slice of fruitcake, I knew that there are foods so authentic that it's a mistake to abstain.
Next, I sampled a slice from a different plate, studded with hazelnuts and washed with apricot jam. It was lighter, less complex, but again, lovingly created.
I gained five pounds that Christmas -- all, I'm quite sure, from fruitcake.
After I graduated from college and moved to New York, I began my search for a great fruitcake recipe. I started with one from Sunset magazine. Next, I tried a white fruitcake soaked in apricot brandy, a recipe shared by a colleague at Harcourt Brace. Then, on November 14, 1979, the New York Times published a recipe: Julie Sahni's Memory Dark Fruitcake. Sahni's created her recipe as she remembered the fruitcake of her youth, in India.
The batter, so reminiscent of the rich fruitcake I tasted that Christmas when I was 16, includes currants, dates, raisins, walnuts, cashews, slivered almonds and candied melon peel (citron), glazed pineapple, orange peel and lemon peel, spiced with dark molasses, cocoa, cinnamon, mace, cloves and brandy. I still use the recipe -- without the cashews and pineapple -- 32 years later.
I bake at least 20 fruitcakes each fall, using as many organic ingredients as I can get my hands on -- including eggs, flour, fruits and nuts. It takes a whole day, from early morning until late into the night, because they bake in a slow oven for a long time.
When the cakes are cool, I cut a piece of tightly woven unbleached cheesecloth, dip it in brandy, and wrap each cake, adding a layer of foil and then a layer of plastic. The fruitcakes gestate side-by-side in the extra refrigerator in my garage. I unwrap each cake, resoak the cheesecloth and rewrap at two-week intervals until the cakes are soaked through. Fruitcakes that have been soaked in brandy or rum will keep for years in a cool place, and only improve with age.
I used to think that my list of fruitcake recipients would shrink as the old folks passed away. But the list is as long as ever -- and getting longer. Each year I add new aficionados, young and not-so-young. Some remember fruitcake fondly because their mother or grandmother used to make it. Some are children of people on my list. And then there's the mother of one of my friends, who -- as a Dutch national -- spent several teenage years in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia. After the war, steaming back to Holland on a British ship, the cook fed her fruitcake -- manna after her ordeal in the camp. Fruitcake evokes good memories for her.
The pleasure my fruitcakes bring make it worth the time and expense. The happy anticipation each time I hand over a cool, hefty, foil-wrapped bundle. The heavy-lidded rapture at the first bite. Some recipients -- like my nephew -- eat their fruitcake in one sitting. Others ration it, savoring a couple of thin slices every week or two for a special treat, making it last. And it pleases me to see fruitcake getting the appreciation it so richly deserves.