Let them eat fruit cake
November 12, 2014 § 7 Comments
My grandmother’s fruit cakes were legendary. They were rich, dark, moist and delicious, nothing like those dry lumps of dustiness that people hand out at weddings and try to pass off as cake. And it seemed like she was always making them, except for when she was making the very best milk tart in the world.
When she was in her late 80s, however, she moved into frail care, and she didn’t own much, but she passed on a few treasured items to her three grandchildren. I was privileged enough to receive her recipe books: three, in various stages of disrepair.
The first is a now-coverless book printed in 1913, its pages crumbly and yellowed. It’s called The South African Household Guide, “containing practical hints on plain cooking, with recipes; useful general hints; medical advice to mothers, etc.; household work; notes for farmers”. It’s filled with the most extraordinary information, in exceedingly formal language, but it’s so fragile I’m afraid to handle it much.
It’s the other two books that really interest me, because they’re a memoir of my grandmother’s culinary history, a peek over the window ledge into a different world. They are filled with notes, ideas, remedies and recipes; filled with her personality. And each time I turn their pages and read her precise, copperplate writing it’s like falling down a rabbit hole into the wonderland of comfort that my grandmother was for me.
From the first page I can smell the 4-711 Eau de Cologne, feel the papery softness of her skin, hear her Afrikaans-lilted voice admonishing me for being messy, or telling me that her maiden name, Du Toit, meant van die dak afgeval. [“one who has fallen off the roof”]. And I smile, and sometimes the longing to see her rises unbidden in my throat.
So it was to these recipe books that I turned when I decided it was time for me to start making my own Christmas cake. For me, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a proper cake. It stands proudly on its board or cake stand in the dining room until finally, on Christmas morning, after church, everyone has a cup of tea and a slab of cake, and the presents are opened.
And then I realised I had a real challenge on my hands: there were at least three fruit cake recipes, all different, all in her handwriting, and with no indication of which cake recipe was the right one. Unhelpfully, she had not labelled any of the recipes “My legendary fruit cake”. In addition, I realised how much of an instinctive baker she was. My father – her son – always joked that she measured things in handfuls and mouthfuls, and he wasn’t far wrong.
But I pored over them, nevertheless, smiling at the notes in the margin. One of the three recipes suggests that you can add almonds if desired. “I do not!” writes my grandmother. “Too expensive!” (Also, in her other recipes, I always smile at her many and varied spellings of ‘granadilla’. I think my favourite is ‘grundedilla’.)
So I left the almonds out. I was also relieved to see that none of the recipes featured mixed peel, because I can’t bear the stuff. It took a few failures and tweaks and adjustments until I got a good hybrid recipe, one that lives up to my memories. And now, every year, around this time, I start baking fruit cakes, both for our Christmas cake, and as gifts for friends and family.
Because I live in the southern hemisphere, this means baking cakes that take three to four hours in the oven in the middle of summer, when the outside temperature can be above 30 degrees Celsius, but I don’t care.
Because I love the ritual of methodically cutting up the fruit, so that all the pieces are approximately raisin-sized. I love mixing the raisins, sultanas, dates, cherries, preserved figs and pineapple so that they “look like a stained glass window” – her precise instructions to a much shorter version of me that stood on a stool in a too-large apron at the Formica-topped table and stirred the fruit mix, hanging on her every word. I love the smell of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves that scents the air with a foretaste of Christmas.
And I love wrapping up those cakes in foil and storing them in containers, ready to be topped with marzipan and fondant, or eaten plain with a slab of sharp Cheddar in the months ahead. It’s a ritual I cherish, partly for the joy of eating the cake, but mostly because every year, it’s like I have my grandmother back for just a little while.