For the Canadian Food Experience Project Challenge Seven: A Christmas Tradition on the Canadian Prairies
My Great Aunt Lucille made the best white fruit cake. I preferred it when I was young. Most likely, the lack of molasses was key to my young palate, yet the candied pineapple with coconut probably added to its charm as both were delicacies. She used whole almonds with bark on. I couldn’t understand how thin the slices could be and how easily the almonds were to slice through. I grew to appreciate and revere the traditional Christmas fruit cake. Making it was a production. Brushing it with rum, or whisky, or brandy or bourbon was a production. Each woman had their way with their cake and how they made and aged it to burgeoning ripeness. Everyone made the dark cake and some made both.
When the fruit cakes were pronounced ready, there was scurrying from the pantry to the kitchen table. Unwrapping the test cake was a ritual. I know I held my breath. “Just smell this!” Mom would say, peeling away the foil victoriously presenting the soiled and stained aromatic cheesecloth swaddled package to our nostrils. The fragrance caught in the middle of my throat. A deluge of elixir lovingly soaked into the loaves; enough that just whiffing had me a little starry-eyed. Mom and dad quivered as the cheesecloth unwound releasing the pungent black moist bejeweled fruit cake. Slicing it was key.
Passing the fragrance and eye test was critical enough. Now the slicing. Great Aunt Lucille’s mother, my mom’s dad’s mother, and my great grandmother, Granny Anderson, had one clearly defined rule that the perfect Canadian Christmas Fruit Cake must pass: it should be able to be sliced so thin that when holding it up to a window, one can see through the candied fruit and the slice should look like a gorgeous piece of stained glass.
Success! I actually prefer the no-nuts version, now that I have made it with nuts again. They are tasty, but I prefer the look without them. The glass is more “see through” and it reminds me more of my old family cakes. You can also see why leaving the cherries whole is important. That is Beavie holding the piece up to the window for me.
My mom and dad had their own criteria: the flavour test. Whatever taste memory they had built in over years and years of Christmas Fruit Cake making and baking and tasting and testing, both knew whether this year was a good one, or not, pretty much after one bite. Fortunately, almost all years were good ones, but some were exceptional. And when the cake could be sliced to Granny Anderson’s standard and taste tested to my mom’s, then we had the best fruit cake on the Canadian prairies that year.
That was the year that mom would wish she had made more. That was the year that she would cut little sections from her loaf for sharing with her neighbours and friends. Her fruit cake next to theirs on the Traditional Christmas Goodie Plate: there was just no comparison. Of course, we were well bred children and knew to compliment both, but the celebration for mom would be coming home to hear how much better her cake was than so-and-sos. That was just the way it was.
When someone gifted you with a section of their fruit cake, you knew it was a very good year at their house, and there was a little tremor in the hand accepting that gift. Usually, it was never better than our own, however, what disgrace if another cake surpassed my own mother’s. She took serious pride in her reputation for having the most spotless house on the block, and consistently aspired to be the best cook and baker in the neighbourhood, as well.
There was no contest, as for me, she was.
And, that is how I have grown into being a connoisseur of Christmas Fruit Cakes. A very honest route to this métier.
Homemade Christmas Fruit Cakes have now become an endangered species on the Canadian prairies. No one I know makes them. No one. I have people to take mine to, but no one to seat my slice beside on the equally endangered Traditional Canadian Christmas Goodie Platter. One may think that eases the pressure of making the best Fruit Cake, but it doesn’t. I still have both mom and dad to please. Their learned palate approval of my homemade Fruit Cake is a coveted trophy. I am a novice in the Fruit Cake making world, as I didn’t learn to make this cake at the hip of my own mother. I have floundered through it on my own, and hope to one day, reign triumphant. Just in my own mind.
The Christmas Fruit Cake is as fundamental to a Canadian Christmas as the Christmas Tree itself. It is as much a part of the holiday feast as the turkey on the table. Even more, as there is this story to tell. These are my people. To share this tradition to my own children and future generations of my family are the ties that bind. It is these moments and these stories that have contributed to the character and integrity of this family through the lessons learned via our family rituals. Such is our homemade Christmas fruit cake.
- ¾ c softened butter
- 1 ¼ c firmly packed brown sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 ½ c all purpose sifter flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ cup dark molasses
- ½ cup brewed black coffee (or espresso)
- ½ cup bourbon
- 1 pound dark raisins
- ½ pound candied red cherries, whole
- ½ pound candied green cherries, whole
- ¼ pound candied orange peel, chopped
- ¼ pound candied lemon peel, chopped
- ½ pound chopped citron
- ½ pound dark pitted dates, chopped
- 1 cup pecans, toasted whole
- Bourbon for soaking cheesecloth in and brushing on
- ½ cup warmed red currant jelly
- Pecan halves, and candied cherry halves
- Preheat oven to 300°F and grease two 9 x 5 loaf pans 2½ inches deep or five 5¾ x 3 pans 2 inches deep
- Line bottoms with parchment paper; butter it (the original recipe was waxed paper)
- Cream together butter and brown sugar; beat in the eggs.
- Sift all dry ingredients; beat into butter mixture
- Add molasses, coffee, and bourbon to mixture; combine well
- Fold in the fruit and nuts
- Carefully pack the batter into the prepared pans almost to the top (I used an offset spatula to finish the tops of each cake)
- Place pans on centre rack of oven in a bain marie (place pans in a larger pan and pour hot water halfway up the sides); bake for 2 to 2 ½ hours, or until toothpick comes out clean (the small cakes took 50 minutes, so watch carefully after 45 minutes)
- If the tops brown too quickly, place foil over the top
- Cool 30 minutes, then remove and set on wire rack
- Wrap carefully in a triple layer of cheesecloth that has been soaked in bourbon
- Seal tightly in aluminum foil and store in a cool dry place until the holiday season
- Once a week, remove foil, and brush additional bourbon onto the cheese cloth
- The longer it is stored, the more times it is dowsed, the more pungent and flavourful it becomes.
I sure hope that when my Traditional Canadian Prairie Christmas Fruit Cakes 2013 are cured that the images will evidence success. I hope I can show you a thinly sliced stained glass cake that has flavour like no other. Meanwhile, I brush the cakes lovingly each weekend, relish the aroma and pray for the best.