Volume 14, Issue 51 ~ December 21 - December 28, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

I’m Longing for a Great Fruitcake

Detractors don’t know what they’re missing

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man, bake me a cake as fast as you can.

– Anonymous

Like the editors of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, I have no idea who Anonymous was, but I’ll tell you this:

I don’t want that baker baking my cake. Not if he is going to bake it as fast as he can. No way.

I’m not much for cakes, unless they are as chocolate as chocolate can be, but my cardiologist and family doctor have vetoed any such indulgences by this chocoholic. There is but one other exception. I’d kill for a traditional homemade fruitcake.

A good and hearty fruitcake is the most wrongfully maligned creation on God’s earth. There are more jokes about fruit cakes then there are about mothers in-law, bald men and frigid wives combined.

We’re told the last thing to consider for a Christmas present, even for the neighbor whose howling mongrel keeps you awake all night, is a fruit cake. You might say in the world of desserts a fruitcake is persona non grata. People are known to move from their neighborhood upon learning a fruitcake is being sent them.

I say balderdash. Just once taste a good fruitcake, not one stacked on the Christmas gift aisle of the supermarket or pitched by kids raising funds for class.

The Art of the Cake

A fruitcake is a labor of love. Its making takes time, ingenuity, meticulous planning and originality — and not-inexpensive ingredients. Those you rarely find in a store-bought, production-line, hurriedly created fruitcake.

Done right, it can take the better part of a day to make a fruitcake that belies all the jokes. I judge but by the fruit, said Lord Byron, and so do I of the dried fruits that go in a fruitcake. The wine, brandy or stronger booze that many put in fruitcakes can add or detract, but the bottom line is the selection of fruits, including nuts. Unfortunately, commercial bakers mass produce fruitcakes with cost, profit and haste in mind.

My Sister’s Superlative Creation

My New Englander sister Ruth Wilbur creates the best fruitcake (one doesn’t make, one creates a fruitcake) I’ve ever passed between my lips. But only once have I ever had the pleasure, and that occasion was a long time ago. The taste and texture lingers to this day.

Ruth still creates one fruitcake at Christmastime, and it’s for Uncle Jack, the figurative president of Respect and Enjoy Fruitcakes International (REFI). Sometimes a week or two before Christmas when I know Ruth’s fruitcake is about to reach Uncle Jack’s home in Washington, New Jersey, I ponder visiting him unannounced. I wouldn’t want to let him know I’m coming. He’d hide the fruitcake.

I resist the temptation to plead with Ruth for a fruitcake. Vaguely I know what goes into one in time (hours if done right), effort (considerable) and ingredients (many). Also, what artist wants to sell a masterpiece — unless uncertain where the next meal is coming from.

Sister Ruth’s fruitcake is literally much more fruit than cake, which is the way things should be. Not only better fruitcake, but one that will last longer — unless it happens to be in my house, where longevity would be a couple of days, tops. If the cake was big.

When I called Ruth the other night to drop a few hints of how nice a slice or two via mail would be, she told me she had just learned on TV that a properly liquored fruitcake survives the taste test for 16 years. Hard liquor combined with dried fruit preserves well, I’d say.

Will the Secret Be Passed on?

Also, it bodes well in another way. We’ve all heard of a fruitcake that was passed on to another family member or friend every Christmas year after year, which means somewhere along the line within 16 years it will end up under the tree of someone who knows a good thing.

Methinks appreciation of a good fruitcake is akin to the attitude of fourth-grade macho boys about girls: They all like them, but none will admit it. But that theory was nicked a bit the other day when at this publication’s Christmas party, I asked chef Shawn Huff of Herrington on the Bay, who had laid out an unbelievable spread, what he thought of fruitcakes. Also, had he ever made one?

I sure was deflated. He answered that no one eats ’em, though, yes, he had made one. One only. It was required before completion of his culinary art school classes.

The Cake of My Dreams

I’ve been tempted to create a fruitcake, but haven’t. I’m aware of my shortcomings. With all the sweetened dried fruit laid out in front of me, I’d start taste testing; there’d not be much left, and my fruitcake would be more cake than fruit, which is a no-no.

Also, the only thing I know about the art is that dried fruit should be added whole for better taste and texture. No problem; tradition has it that fruitcakes must be cut with ultra-sharp knives. They’ll cut through both nuts and fruit. No messy portions, though I wouldn’t complain. Even the crumbs would activate my taste buds.

Whenever there comes within me the insatiable craving for a true fruitcake, something akin to that of a pregnant woman for pickles and/or ice cream, I think of the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

At length I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being informed that the country people had no bread, replied ‘Let them eat cake.’

To me, that would be Utopia, heaven on earth, but with one non-negotiable insistence: It’s gotta be a fruitcake. Enough said.

No, not quite. To readers, one and all, Merry Christmas.

Editor’s note: Readers who think they make a good fruitcake might let Bill Burton — who turned 80 on Dec. 15 — be the judge. Send your birthday and Christmas fruitcakes to Bill Burton, P.O. Box 430, Pasadena, MD 21123. He‘ll not only be surprised, he’ll write a column on his tastings.

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