Good fruitcake does not deserve the bad rap it gets. Bad fruitcake needs to leave the table.
My introduction to the cake began decades ago, as a child, when my grandmother started her day (before dawn) browning flour in a cast-iron skillet. It would be another hour before we heard a steam whistle blast in some plant downtown indicating it was 6:50 a.m.
My grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Cora, were the chief bakers in the Guilford Avenue house where I observed their early December ritual. Their complicated and antediluvian fruitcake recipe was handwritten on a document that was battered by time and annual refolding.
It also was smattered with fruitcake batter. This hallowed formula was handed down from their father, William M. Steward, an eminence in the Baltimore City Republican Party. I’m certain the day his daughters produced the cake he left for work early, very early and returned only when he was certain the baking ordeal had passed.
The production of this seasonal cake tested their skills and they enjoyed every minute of the challenge. They also, in mid-January, liked having yet another small slice. They cut only small portions. This was a delicacy, and they revered it as such.
This cake, one of many cake varieties they made for the Christmas season, held a special status. Others preferred the orange, chocolate, pound, coconut and devil’s-food cakes that appeared this time of year, all strictly homemade. But fruitcake was their finest hour.
It required advance work. Flour, eggs and sugar were always on hand. But not the almonds, dates, currants and candied fruits. There was an art to acquiring that lengthy inventory — the candied orange peel and citron, the nuts and the liqueurs — French brandy, Curacao and triple sec. Browning the flour was also a pain. The recipe called for New Orleans molasses.
The finished cake was heavy and demanded the largest tin canister (tight lid too) in the kitchen arsenal. This was a special cake and deserved only the tightest container.
This was in contrast to the zillion dozen sugar cookies (heavy on the butter and nutmeg) they kept in ancient stoneware crocks. The crocks were tied with string and a light cover of wax paper.
Their masterpiece, this regal cake was heady and dense. It recalled an era of terrapin stew, grilled sweetbreads and oyster pot pie.
It was not for people who like their sweets bland. Like a dinner where the main course is wild game, this item packed a punch. You had to like well-baked raisins and chopped nuts. Otherwise, pass on fruitcake and nibble on a cookie.
And, in some years, there was no fruitcake without a fight or at least some domestic drama.
There could be a crisis in the kitchen. If, in the culinary tussle between cake batter and the Sunbeam electric mixer motor, the flour, butter and eggs triumphed, there could be a puff of smoke, a burnt machine and a smoky smell that was more than a little scary.
Lily Rose, who ruled her kitchen, would fall into an uncharacteristic panic. My father, Joe Kelly, knew how to read distress signals and did what was necessary. He helped out.
He placed the temporarily wounded and overworked Sunbeam in his Rambler American and dashed it to the neighborhood mixer hospital, the Electric Motor Repair Co. on 25th Street.
The old machine appeared to be a basket case, but technicians nursed the old wiring along as they extricated calcified sugar and gummy flour deposits from the battle-wearied gears. That machine had produced many a birthday cake and seven-minute icing. It was a veteran of ingredient abuse. There was never, never a thought given to replacing it.
The mixer would get home after a couple of days in the shop. My father, ever the diplomat, would try to caution his mother-in-law about the wisdom of driving the mixer too hard.
Her response was simple. She plugged it in, threw the mixer setting to its highest and got on with Christmas.