A friend recently diagnosed as being allergic to gluten found himself unable to eat the fruitcake he had been sent at Christmas and passed it on to us. It was very big and quite heavy, shiny with cellophane and red ribbons, and wedged tightly in a festive tin. A solid confection, stored away in the freezer, waiting for a party that hadn’t happened.
So I gave it a second chance — pried it out of all its wrappings, got out some nice plates and sliced up a quarter of it for dinner guests, adding a big ladle of whipped cream on top. There should have been a whiff of bourbon on it, but there wasn’t time for it to soak in — more than a whiff to do it right. Not exactly a spring dessert, but then it’s not spring yet either. People seem to think if they can just get out of February, they will enter spring. And a few snowdrops under the kitchen window add to the delusion.
My great-aunt used to make a fruitcake at Christmas, dark brown and raisiny and full of nuts. Also those colored things, which I hated, the green ones particularly. I would pick them out and line them up on the edge of my plate. What are the green things anyway?
After it was baked, she would wrap it in a cloth which had been soaked in bourbon, and it would rest for a week or so. It was served with something called “hard sauce” a kind of custardy stuff, also redolent of spirits. I don’t remember actually eating any of it, I was a cookie child myself, and didn’t care for cake. Also, it had those “green things.” But I remember the cooking part of it...the kitchen was in turmoil. The dishpan was used as a giant mixing bowl and a person could get in it with two hands and the sleeves rolled up. A spoon was of no use here. Brown sugar, white raisins, black walnuts, citron, candied cherries, candied pineapple. Since we used black walnuts on everything that called for nuts, there was always a special fragrance and taste to anything my folks, and now myself, would bake. Kentucky is black walnut tree country, free and abundant. Some would say it’s an acquired taste. The day of the baking, the kitchen and the whole house, right out on to the porch, smelled wonderful (whether you like to eat cake or not).
I’m in no hurry for the strawberry shortcake season. There are a list of the so-called “quiet time” projects to finish — or begin. They are always there, whatever the time of year. It must give us some comfort to designate a “quiet time” as though we will actually get some order into our possessions and ideas and bookshelves. For now, there’s still all this fruitcake to eat; and it’s gaining a little manna under its bourbon cloth.
Gazette contributor Jeanne Hewett is a writer and fabric artist who lives in Edgartown.