Every year about this time, I can’t wait to bake a fruitcake. There is just something about baking one that goes hand in hand with Christmas.
It might have something to do with the brightly colored red, green and yellow candied cherry and pineapple pieces. It is amazing that when placed together in the dull batter of a fruitcake they shine as bright as any multi-colored Christmas tree lights. And they require no plugs or electrical outlets.
For me, I think this whole fruitcake tradition can be traced way back to the days when my grandmother baked ours. Yes, she started the fruitcake tradition in our family. Just before Thanksgiving every year, without exception, she would gather her fruits and nuts and set aside a day to chop, stir and bake.
Sometimes I was an observer during this fruity aerobic production. It is not for the weak at heart! Baking a fruitcake requires excellent chopping skills and even has the ability to tone muscles during the stirring of the thick batter.
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It was an amazing process to watch. It took my grandmother hours and hours to prepare her ingredients, and that did not include the hours it took to bake the cake.
“Set aside the better part of a day,” she would say to me. “Because it will take it,” she added. And that is exactly what we did. She planned weeks in advance and then nothing, and I do mean nothing, would interfere with her fruitcake baking day. That is, unless she-received a call telling her about the death of someone in her church. Then she would have to switch gears and fry up some chicken to take to the bereaved.
Granny was a “dyed in the wool” Southern Baptist. She practiced what was preached, and that even trickled down to her fruitcake baking. Even if the recipe called for any kind of spirits to be added to the finished cake for flavoring or to keep it moist, they were omitted without consideration. No exceptions!
As a result, during the time that lapsed between when she baked it and Christmas Day, even though the fruit tried with all its juicy might, dryness occurred. In order to counterbalance this effect, Granny attempted to hold as much moisture in as possible. I refer to her process as “fruitcake mummification.”
She had a round, covered tin brightly decorated with holly and poinsettias whose sole purpose was to hold the fruitcake when it was not being served. But before Granny could place the cake into the tin, she had to encase it in layer after layer of old plastic bags that had previously held loaves of bread. Granny saved everything. I think she was one of the first people to recycle.
Each layer was securely sealed with twisty ties that she had also saved. One went inside the other until all that was left was a big plastic blob with all kinds of logos showing, from Sunbeam to Roman Meal. She then placed it into the tin and, with a sigh as if saying goodbye to a loved one, shut the lid of the fruitcake coffin.
Her fruitcake always made its debut on Thanksgiving Day. I could hardly wait to have a piece. After all, it was still fresh at that point. It took Granny a pretty good while to unleash the cake from its recycled coverings in order to serve it. It wasn’t until the last bread wrapper was removed that the fragrant smell of the cake was released from its tomb.
Granny used a very sharp, serrated knife to cut the cake. I watched in awe as she sliced each piece of fruitcake. She had a lot of practice and, even though her hands were arthritic, she always achieved the exact one quarter-inch thickness she desired. After all, the cake had to last all the way to Christmas.
When I received my fragile slice of fruitcake, I would hold it up to the light before I would eat it. To me, it resembled beautiful stained glass windows in a church. Each piece of brightly colored fruit became a section of the edible window. As I finally took a bite of it, I knew Christmas could not be far away!
Baking a fruitcake is a true labor of love. It is one that brings back very fond memories of my grandmother in her small kitchen. I will think of her as I chop up my fruit and nuts and add them to the batter. I will think of her as it bakes for hours and its wonderful aroma fills my kitchen. I always do at this time of year because I cannot have Christmas without a fruitcake.
Fruitcakes get such a bad rap in my opinion. They have been berated and called names like door stops and bricks, but I love them. Especially the made-from-scratch variety. In fact, I will be baking mine as soon as I finish this column. Just writing about all of this has made my mouth water. I have to go for now and preheat my oven. I think I hear my grandmother calling.
MORE FROM MARK
Ÿ Check out Mark’s Web site. Visit www.markballard.com for current projects, and lots of other fun stuff for the holidays!
Ÿ The Mark Ballard Show. Cox Cable Channel 15 through December. Check local listings for times.
Ÿ Mark’s on www.macon.com 24 hours a day! Current and archived videos, columns and articles are featured.
Mark Allen Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA; fax them to (478)474-4390 or call (478) 757-6877.