The Damnable Fruitcake
That November I was 20 years old. My mother had died just the past June. My father’s clan was spending Christmas with us because his brother was here from the province undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. I was in my last semester of college, doing my thesis, and now had to take charge of what was going to be a family reunion of my father and his seven siblings, their spouses, and their children (we’re 40 cousins) during the holidays. Mom could have handled this, as she always took good care of my father’s family. They thought she was a saint.
She was systematic with lists and procedures, the perfect housewife. She knew everything and more about good housekeeping. I helped her at home and did what she asked but in a free-wheeling, panicky, dash-to-the-finish way. She tried to teach me to be more methodical but it never happened. She could see it wasn’t in me so she would just shake her head and sigh, “Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. As long as it’s done.”
It was futile asking my brothers for help; they were both still dealing with her death. Likewise with my father who also faced the possibility of another death in the family. They were clueless about skinning any housekeeping cat anyway. That’s how efficient Mom had been. At least I had a vague idea. So like Mom, I armed myself with a budget, several lists, and a work schedule. Mom would have been proud, except…I was already late with the first thing on my schedule – bake fruitcake.
Mom used to do this in September and lovingly brushed all those cakes with brandy twice a week until they were eaten in December and January. Everybody looked forward to her marvelous fruitcakes. I’m not a novice in the kitchen and I did help her with the baking, but mostly just the labor-intensive, less critical steps. I wasn’t really paying attention. I hated fruitcake.
So I looked into her little notebook for the recipe. Written with ink on one page it said: Fruitcake - pound cake with 15 eggs, 1 kilo good glaced fruit, raisins, dates, 1 kilo walnuts, half a bottle of good brandy, molasses, double-grease the pan, bake 375. Written with pencil at the bottom: Just enough batter to stick together.
The thought that entered my mind was, “Mom, you’ve got to be kidding!” Was this all she had written down about fruitcake? Where were the ingredients list, the detailed procedure, her personal tips? I had a sinking feeling of doom, and while my life did not flash before my eyes, I saw a kaleidoscope of relatives whose Christmas had been spoiled by no fruitcake. I was suddenly angry at Mom. Damn it, why did she have to be dead now?
At the grocery, I went over the list. For good brandy I got a bottle of Carlos I. Walnuts was clear enough, same with 15 eggs. Now the pound cake. All these recipes start with: cream butter and sugar together. A kilo of each went into the shopping cart. Flour! Can’t make cake without flour, but how much? I mentally asked Mom, trying at the same time to imagine her measuring out flour. In my brain I heard her say: “--- cups and half more for dusting.” That was not helpful. I got the biggest bag – 4 kilos of all-purpose flour. It struck me then that cakes need baking powder so I hooked a small can of double-acting one on my way to the preserves.
And what is good glaced fruit? All I saw on the shelves were unlabeled plastic bags of plastic-looking mystery fruit bits. I don’t care for glaced fruit but I knew this was not the kind Mom bought. Those smelled vaguely medicinal, these smelled positively like cough syrup. How could anybody eat this stuff? To give myself some thinking time, I went to get raisins. Which ones to get? Dark raisins, muscats, sultanas, currants. Oh what the hell, I got a pack of each. Next to the raisins were the dates. No confusion there, two boxes went into the cart.
And back to the glaced fruit, but wait. There were other fruit just plainly dried: apricots, cranberries, blueberries, diced apples and pears, cherry halves. These were preserved, in other words just like glaced fruit they wouldn’t rot anytime soon. Better to err on the side of caution. Better to get fruit I knew than fruit that was suspiciously un-fruit-like. I got an assortment, adding up their net weights to make a kilo more or less.
I seemed to have gotten everything on the list. But didn’t a cake need some liquid? Milk? I wrestled with that while waiting in the check-out line, then decided against it. Nothing that had milk in it was going to last a couple of months unrefrigerated. Mom had not refrigerated the cakes but kept them wrapped in foil in a cupboard. Well, 15 eggs was a lot of liquid and there was the brandy. Oops, forgot the tin foil, I needed lots, and waxed paper, too. Left the cart and rushed to get them.
At home, I got the biggest mixing bowl we had – big enough to put a baby in – and dumped in all the dried fruit, raisins, and dates, and covered it with a cloth. I knew they had to be soaked in brandy, so I soaked them thinking to leave them overnight. Unfortunately, I forgot about them for a couple of days. They had dried out. I soaked them some more and decided to do the baking that day after everybody had gone to bed.
With everyone retired for the night, I had the kitchen to myself. Greasing and papering the little loaf tins I could do in my sleep — I had done it gazillion times before for Mom. Although we had lots of them, I prepared 12 because that was what fit in the oven. Next I mixed the nuts with the fruit so I would only have to think about the batter.
Leaving the sugar and butter aside, I tried to get organized. I attended to the dry ingredients first. Looking at the tins I guesstimated half a cup of flour for each and sifted 6 cups. A teaspoon of baking powder per cup of flour? There went the 6 teaspoons. I decided to add 3 more just to be sure. I figured the baking powder would have to lift all those fruits and nuts, too. Whoops, salt! There’s always salt in these recipes; a tablespoon should do whatever salt was supposed to do.
Somehow I felt there had to be more to this. Fruitcakes smell so delicious and spicy—aha! I looked in the cupboard. Why not add some cinnamon? Lots of cakes have cinnamon. I love nutmeg so I put in a bit of that too. All spice, why not? Cayenne…er, no. After mixing everything together I had doubts about the spices. Maybe too much? So I mixed in another cup of flour just as
“…and half more for dusting” ran through my mind. Well, it’s a flour mixture, I assured myself, while dusting the fruits and nuts with it, since everything is going to get blended anyway.
Now the liquids. The fifteen eggs went into another bowl which I whisked vigorously. Pour in the half bottle of brandy? I thought about this carefully. Recipes that started with cream-butter-and-sugar continued with add-eggs, and then add-dry-mixture-and-liquids-alternately. I would follow this. No need to measure out the brandy as there was only half the bottle left after all the soaking.
I preheated the oven and plugged in the heavy-duty mixer. Into its bowl I put the kilo of butter. But how much sugar? All those fruits were sweet, so it shouldn’t take much. I put in 3 cups. The mixer complained a bit at the cold mass of butter but true to its reputation (Hobart), it got the stuff creamed together. The eggs went in without a hitch. I put up the speed to make sure everything was blended well.
Then I spooned in a third of the dry mix. The mixer spat out a cloud of flour and while it didn’t complain, it sounded annoyed. The speed was too fast and the flour had formed a layer on top of the batter. I put down the speed and poured in a third of the brandy. The batter became thick and creamy. I added another third of both flour and brandy, slowing down the speed with the flour and upping it with the brandy. After the last portions were in, the batter turned doughy.
I needed liquids fast but there was no more brandy. Vanilla! Cakes are supposed to have vanilla. A quick look in the cupboard brought out many small bottles of flavoring – vanilla, orange, lemon – none of which had more than dregs. All of these went into the mixture. The batter smelled better but the consistency was still a bit stiff. Also, it looked very decidedly pale and wasn’t quite sweet enough.
Oh for heaven’s sake, I had forgotten the molasses! That would have made the batter softer, sweeter, and darker. A panicked search of all the kitchen cabinets revealed none. There was a small ancient-looking bottle of honey but it was so dark as to be almost opaque. Honey would be helpful but was this expired? Alexander the Great popped into my head. Wasn’t he preserved in it? Honey doesn’t expire that’s why those doomsday preppers stock up on it. With fingers crossed, I put all of the honey in. To my relief, the batter’s consistency turned normal and while it was not as dark as it should have been, it was very deliciously honey-colored.
It was obvious that the mixer’s 5-quart bowl was too full to accommodate the fruits and nuts. I poured the batter into the larger bowl and mixed it manually. Almost 5 quarts of batter and about 3 kilos of fruit and nuts were just too much for the puny wooden spoon. Besides, this was not some creamy batter studded with trifles which could be poured into tins. It was a pebbly mass of goo, like a lot of little stones coated with mud. Mixing manually became literal, a large rubber scraper and a soup ladle necessary to get the stuff into the tins.
And to the home stretch! I washed my hands and lined up the tins near the oven. But when I opened the door the most staggering reek wafted out. I thought maybe there was already something in the oven before I put it on but the cavity was empty and clean. Was something burning? Did it smell like an electrical short? I took a tentative whiff. It smelled like…DEAD RAT! Somewhere in the workings of the oven was an electrocuted, roasted, deceased rodent.
Mindlessly I fanned the inside with potholders. What to do? The cakes couldn’t wait much longer. I couldn’t put off the oven now and go puttering about in its electrical innards. Wait, it was a self-cleaning oven – supposed to char any dirt and spatter to odorless ash to be conveniently swept away. Okay, the rat wasn’t inside the oven technically but somewhere near enough its hot walls to get cooked. I had an idea.
I put a roasting tray full of water on the lower rack of the oven. Into it went anything that could possibly overcome that smell. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice, anise, star anise, an old lemon, oregano. Green tea, black tea, mint tea, chamomile and rose tea. A dash of rum, another of vodka, and leftover orange juice. Then I stuck some charcoal at the bottom near the heating elements. The smell seemed less but might have been just the result of the open door. In desperate optimism I packed the tins into the oven, closed the door, and set the timer.
I don’t remember what I did the hour and a half it took to bake the cakes. I just recall the timer ringing to signal the oven was off and me sniffing my way to the kitchen like a scared rabbit. I wasn’t going to slowly open the oven door, I was determined to yank it open and face reality.
HOT DAMN! Everyone was bowled over by my fruitcake, even the kids! They oohed and aahed, how fruity, how nutty, how moist, how scrumptious. I never told anyone about the rat.
Writen and illustrated by Bettina Muñoz