Fruitcake gets a revision with an old family recipe

Published 10:00 pm Thursday, December 22, 2016

Betty’s Fruitcake

Betty’s Fruitcake

My mother might not have had the chiseled body of Madonna, but man, oh man, in her prime, she had a forearm like Popeye. She had to — in order to tackle her yearly holiday cakes.

This Christmas, the first without Mom, has me bound and determined to bake (you have no idea how distressing that four-letter word is to me) as near as I can to the delicious, traditional, English fruitcake that was roundly beloved and devoured by family and friends and passed down from her own mother.

Now before you grimace at the thought of that particular “F” bomb, let me make this clear: We are not talking the fruitcake that has been the object of scorn and re-gifting in the United States. It is not gooey or shaped like a brick, remaining so as it negotiates your colon. In short, this is not your father’s fruitcake.

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This piece of old-fashioned heaven, hailing from Yorkshire and often iced in England with marzipan, but left bare in the Stone household, is a sort of coarser pound cake, and not as moist. Whole wheat flour, for the nutty flavor, is preferred in my own adaptation, and with it, a cup of butter, a cup of brown sugar, four eggs, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, with a few cups of chopped nuts and mixed dried fruit, including apricots, currants and cherries.

The butter and sugar are beaten together until creamy, with each egg beaten separately as you add a tablespoon of flour. Then, of course, you get to beat in the spices and lemon and orange rinds, folding in the remaining flour with all the fruit and nuts.

The recipe calls for a couple of tablespoons of sherry, which I find rather “grinchy,” so it gets a hefty dollop at my house, and I’ve used everything from Tia Maria to Grand Marnier —whichever you prefer — but there is no such thing as the “smooth dropping consistency” that is described, at least not in my giant mixing bowl. The electric beater gets the dough gummed up, so I resort, as did Mom, to a big wooden spoon.

You’d think that after cleaning stalls and doing general farm work each morning, my pipe-cleaner arms would have the sinew and strength to dominate the mixture, but no, I am putting all my strength into that sucker, stirring round and round, beads of sweat collecting along my brow, my shoulder beginning to ache as if I’d just swum 10 laps doing “the butterfly.”

Not sure if it’s yet where it needs to be but crying “Uncle” owing to cramping issues, I spoon the mess into a parchment-lined and greased round cake pan (although Mom always used a bundt) and bake for, vaguely, according to the recipe, two to three hours at 300 degrees. When nearly done, I add walnut halves to the top to make it look purty.

The first time I attempted “Betty’s Fruit Cake,” as named after my grandmother, I left it in too long and it was rather dried out. Two years ago it was pretty darned good, but it just didn’t rise nearly as tall as Mom’s. Then last year, it had a growth spurt of a couple of inches, so I figure this year, I should nail it.

I’ll let you know. The scent escaping from the oven opens all the cherished Christmas memories of my youth, and it is a puzzlement as to what to have with our first slice: the traditional wee dram of whiskey, or a nice, hot, cup o’ tea at the scratched pine table in the kitchen.

The tea wins out. With a splash of bourbon and milk.

Betty would approve.