Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fruitcake: Let's Give It a Little Respect, Please

I’m an unabashed thrift hound.  Before I left Santa Monica, I happened upon my dream scenario: a junk shop closing and selling off its stock, including 25-cent cookbooks. Even though I was focused on getting rid of stuff, I couldn’t resist. Grubby from foraging and flush with that treasure hunter’s glow, I left laden. I scored junior league compilations, obsolete appliance recipes, dubious diet tomes, ethnic cookbooks, even a few classics. I love all those kinds of things for the nostalgia value but I’ll occasionally find something in them to cook.
Leafing through my spoils, I discovered a folded sheaf of yellowing onion skin paper tucked into a book of one-dish suppers. A recipe for “Christmas Cake” was hand-written on it in cursive script. The long ingredients list revealed that the writer likely was English. Clues were that it called for sultanas rather than golden raisins, vanilla essence instead of extract. 

English Christmas Cake
The words transported me. In English homes, making Christmas cake in November heralds the beginning of the holiday season much as Thanksgiving does in the states. Even though I spent most of my childhood in the Southern hemisphere and Christmas fell in summer, we still doggedly followed all the old traditions. The house would be a furnace as the Christmas cake baked for hours. The cooled cake was packed away to “cure” in an air-tight tin. Then a few days before Christmas, we’d unpack the stored cake, redolent of cinnamon and cloves, to be iced. The first layer was marzipan, rich with ground almonds and egg yolk; then came white royal icing that dried hard as a frozen pond. For decoration we had a little winter wonderland kit kept in an old cookie tin. There was a snow-covered cottage made from plaster of Paris, a couple of bristly pine trees like green bottle-brushes, and a plastic snowman that was taller and wider than the house. 
Our holiday dessert tradition never varied: mince tarts made on Christmas Eve and eaten—their flaky butter-and-lard pastry still warm—after midnight mass; domed plum pudding and golden custard sauce with the big feast always eaten at midday; and Christmas cake for afternoon tea. You’d think we’d be full by then. But there was always room for a wedge of dark, dense cake with its soft marzipan and crisp icing. For me it was the star of the Christmas treats.
 Imagine my shock when I found that in the United States, my adopted country, Christmas fruitcake is scorned. You’ve heard all the jokes. The first year I was here, I heard Johnny Carson make fun of a fruitcake on his show. I didn’t get it. I was especially puzzled because my favorite holiday story is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.

My slipped-covered first edition
of A Christmas Memory is one
of my most treasured possessions.
That lonely boy and his elderly cousin foraging for pecans and baking cakes for people who’ve been kind to them throughout the year brings me to tears every reading; and I read it ritualistically every year. How could a country that produced such magnificent fruit cake literature treat the real thing with disrespect?
Over the years, I’ve tried to make converts. I can see how some people have been put off by the dry loaf-shaped cakes that are more common in the US than the round succulent iced version I’m familiar with. But it’s all to no avail and so now I’ve given up.
I guess some memories are best packed away in the old cookie tin of your mind and pulled out to be enjoyed alone.
There have been compensations. I created a whole new set of wonderful memories by holding Christmas teas. (I miss you, girl friends!) They gamely pulled Christmas crackers and wore the silly paper hats. We gorged on cream scones, cookies, and trifle—but no fruitcake.

Christmas Tea 2008

Christmas Tea 2009
Now I’m about to spend my first Christmas in Mexico. I have opportunity to learn new traditions. To the best I’ve been able to find out, cake doesn’t have much place in the festivities. The only cake I see on the horizon is rosca de reyes. That’s the crown-shaped cake that’s served on day of the kings or twelfth night, which falls on January 6th. It has a small representation of the baby Jesus randomly inserted into the batter. Whoever scores the baby in their slice gets to hold a party on February 2nd, the feast of candelaria.(Way to keep the festivities going, Mexico!) In the meantime, I’ll have to make do with galletes de Navidad and buñuelos de viento. That’s okay. Christmas cookies are an okay substitute for Christmas cake; especially when eaten in volume.

Baby Jesus is lurking somewhere in here!

1 comment:

  1. Oh how I miss your Christmas tea...it's bittersweet that we are all scattered around the world right now. xo