Well, I suppose March 15 does not portend holiday baking. The willow tree has transformed itself from a twiny cathedral of grey reeds to a cathedral of neon green chutes. But a rainy, rainy March Sunday makes me yearn for my family and comfort food, regardless of its seasonality. For me that is Meemaw's "Old English Fruitcake." I'm the kind of person who leaves Christmas lights up in the garden all year, because it's too heartbreaking to say goodbye to their magic. So why not eat homemade fruitcake under the Christmas lights in the garden. I think I will, thankyouverymuch.
I was reading Truman Capote at the kitchen table this morning, and his childhood memories so vividly evoke those of my own great-grandmother's home in Belhaven, NC. As I have mentioned, I never really got to know her because she passed when I was 8, but reading her handwriting and cooking her recipes at least allows me to shut my eyes and imagine, and go to a place in my mind that allows me to know her at this place in time, so far away from her Tidewater home and the last good pecan tree on that side of the Mississippi. Capote nails it and takes you to that place, through his own palace of memory.
Below is an excerpt from "A Christmas Memory," and you can listen to Truman's own recitation on "This American Life."
"It's always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: "It's fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat."
The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard's legs. But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.
Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard's owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. "We mustn't, Buddy. If we start, we won't stop. And there's scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes." The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.
We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we'll need a pony to pull the buggy home."
Old English Fruit Cake
as transcribed by Elizabeth Wilkinson and adapted by Anne Sluck Becker
1 lb currants and 1 lb raisins
1/2 lb sliced candied citron
1/4 lb candied orange peel
1 pkg pitted dates
1/2 cup candied cherries or candied pineapple
2 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup pecans
1 1/2 cup walnuts
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp mace
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
3/4 cup butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup orange juice
1/3 cup ﬁg preserves
1/3 cup molasses or sorghum
Heat oven to 250. Grease 10-inch tube pan or 2 9"x5" inch loaf pans. Line bottom with wax paper, greased, and dust with flour. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a medium bowl and stir with a fork. Combine chopped nuts and dried and candied fruit in a separate, large bowl, and add about 1/2 c of the flour mixture. Mix up with your hands and break apart any clusters (make sure all pieces are coated with some flour). In another large bowl, combine the butter and sugar. Beat at high speed for 2 mins, scraping down the bowl as you go. Add eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping as you go. The batter should be soft and thick. Add preserves, molasses, and beat until you have a smooth brown batter. Add half of the remaining flour mixture and half of the orange juice, stirring with a wooden spoon after each addition until the flour or juice disappears into the batter. Repeat with remaining flour and juice. Add fruits and nuts, and stir to mix everything evenly. The batter will be very thick and stiff.
Scoop batter into prepared pans and bake at 250 for 2.5 - 3 hours, until cake springs back when touched at center. A wooden skewer should come out clean, then it's ready. Cool pans on wire rack for a half hour, then carefully remove cake from the pan. Wrap tightly in foil and store for up to 2 weeks at room temperature.
Note: you can sprinkle it with bourbon or rum every few days, but you would have to know where Ruth hid her stash. Only for special guests!