As the holidays approach, I begin to think back to the time when my family made fruitcakes for the Christmas season. My great-grandmother, Ella Darwin Thomison (mistress of Magnolia House) and my grandmother, Clara Thomison Brown were the principal fruitcake makers in our house. They always began this long and tedious process by early November, in order to give the cakes time to “proof” and the flavors time to combine and develop. I can remember the wonderful fruit and spicy odors which seemed to linger in the house for months.
In researching fruitcakes, I have found that a fruitcake is a cake made with chopped, candied and/or dried fruit, nuts and spices, and may be soaked in “spirits.” The fruitcake has a high fruit content, which makes it very heavy. The fruit has been dried and preserved by being soaked in great concentrations of sugar. Naturally, the sugar preserves the fruit, and can cause it to become fermented! Fruitcake has also been classified as wedding and holiday cake. The name is formed from a combination of the Latin fructus, and French frui or frug; and the oldest reference found dates back to the Romans, who used pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins mixed into a barley mash. (Talk about fermentation!) Then, during the Middle Ages, honey, spices and preserved fruits were added. It has been reported that crusaders and hunters packed this type of cake to sustain themselves while on hunting trips away from home over long periods of time.
In the 1400’s, dried fruits from the Mediterranean arrived on British soil, thus beginning the British introduction to fruitcake. Then, during the 1700’s in Europe, a type of ceremonial fruitcake was baked at the end of the nut harvest and saved until the next year. Also, at that time, fruitcakes from the previous year were eaten with the hope that this symbolism would bless another successful harvest. During the early 18th century, fruitcake, then called plum cake, was outlawed throughout Continental Europe because these cakes were considered “sinfully rich.” Also, between 1837 and 1901, the fruitcake was very popular. Victorian Teas were just not the same without the addition of the cake. It became the custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of dark fruit cake under their pillow at night in order to dream of the person they would someday marry.
Mail-order fruitcakes began in America in 1913, with catalogues and charities selling them as fund raisers. Most of the American mass-produced fruitcakes are alcohol-free, but the traditional recipes use alcohol, which prevents mold during storage. Today’s fruitcake is presented in either a loaf or a ring, with there being no difference in the recipe, just the looks.
My grandmother and great-grandmother would begin the fruitcake-making process by first gathering ingredients. And, even though neither of them drank, when this time of year rolled around, it seemed that the “spirits” to soak the fruitcakes in always appeared at the back door just in time for “preservation” of the cakes! The ingredients for these cakes were always mixed by hand, in a special blue and white pottery bowl which was large enough to accommodate all the contents. Today, that bowl, although old and cracked, has a special place in my house.
The baking pans were lined with brown paper or wax paper and treated so that the cakes would not stick and be hard to remove. Our family fruitcakes were baked in a slow oven for hours until a broom straw came out clean; at that time you knew the cake was done. (The tester was a REAL piece of straw taken from a household broom, picked from underneath where it would be clean. This was before cake testers were sold in most places.) After thoroughly cooled, the cakes would be placed in round Christmas tins on a high shelf in our pantry to stay until they were ready to be served. A clean, linen tea towel soaked in wine, brandy, or whiskey would be placed over the top of the cakes to hold in moisture and to prevent mold.
I can remember my grandmother getting the tins of fruitcake down every week for my great-grandmother to check them. She would lift the towel to see if the cakes looked and smelled as though they were “aging”; then they would be put back until the week of Christmas. At that time the fruitcakes would be removed from the tins, cut and served to whoever happened to visit the household. Fruitcake was also served for dessert after Christmas dinner, with “Miss Ella’s” boiled custard. My family made both light and dark fruitcakes, the difference being light or dark fruits, and light or dark spices used in the batter.
After the death of my great-grandmother in 1956, my grandmother began making a “Magic Fruit Cake.” I have no idea where the recipe originated, but I always enjoyed helping with the task, even though this was not nearly as time-consuming as the old fashioned fruitcake. Since the death of my grandmother I have continued to make this fruitcake, because it brings back special memories of Christmas time and the blue and white pottery bowl!
Magic Fruit Cake
8 ounces coconut
1 cup pecans
1 pound dates
1 can sweetened condensed milk
Cut dates in pne-fourth. Cut pecans in one-half. Mix with rest of ingredients and mix well. Bake in a 350° oven approximately one to one and one-half hours, or until a broom straw, toothpick, or cake tester comes out clean. Bake the fruitcake in a greased loaf or round cake pan. Cake will stay very moist for several weeks. (Any candied fruit can be added).
It is noticeable that this fruitcake recipe contains no flour; however, the servings are not meant to stay together as a perfect slice, but rather as small pieces or “bites” of cake. The cake is very moist if not overcooked, and has a delicious flavor.
From the 1885 diary of William Perry Darwin (father of my great-grandmother, Ella) is a notation written on December 24 which tells that he and his children, Jim, Hannah and Ella went to Dayton on that Christmas Eve to attend a social for the Sabbath School. William Perry wrote that it was enjoyable and that the many gifts made the children happy. He also wrote that Adelia (his wife) and the acting Santa Clause filled the children’s stockings. Also, there was a social in Dayton on the night of December 25 to which some of his children were going.
It is always interesting to search through family recipes in order to learn about the foods of years ago, and to read about how families celebrated Christmas during the early years of our county’s history. Therefore, we should learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.
Pat Guffey can be reached at email@example.com