Rich fruitcake, whether loved or abhorred, is synonymous with Christmas. My mother-in-law, Jane, could produce one of the finest. In fact she instinctively began the process the instant we announced our engagement. Her fine offering served as wedding cake on many occasions, mine included.
The revered item required a long, arduous process to assemble, preparing the dates, candied peel, cherries and nuts. All required a great amount of chopping and all hands to the ready.
Jane didn’t have all the kitchen gadgets available today. That would have made her efforts so much easier. She did have an enormous industrial mixer, a true luxury. Her other benefit was Jimmy, husband and trusted helper, most times. Jimmy was often conscripted to chop the dates. He took his assigned cutting board, several blocks of dates and the bowl, heading back into the depths of his television nook with his favourite chair. Hours later Jane went to collect the bowl of chopped dates, only to find that he had devoured a large portion, far more than his share.
Over the years she had come to expect the inevitable and Jane usually purchased more dates than she actually needed, as a backup plan. However, she always fussed at him and made him start over. He in turn cackled at the recurring joke and would mutter, “That got her going.”
Everyone who stopped in for coffee was offered a cutting board and a container of walnuts or candied fruit to chop finely. I can’t really say how many cakes she prepared, but many were given out as gifts and many more were consumed over the Christmas season.
I don’t know where Jane learned her skills but she enjoyed the process of baking. Her cookies and pastries were works of art, taking a large amount of time and effort. She tended more toward meringues with curlicues, luscious tarts, flaky and tender and overflowing with custard or raisins or fruit.
Mom’s baking was heartier, homey. She worked full-time through most of our school years and her efforts were produced with speed and economy, equally tasty but with fewer frills. Mom had a recipe for light, quick fruit bread that was just as enjoyable as Jane’s mammoth production.
Jane’s kitchen produced rich shortbread, full of aromatic butter and icing sugar, which melted in your mouth. Mom preferred thumb cookies, tiny with a thumbprint filled with a variety of jams or maraschino cherries, or a few gumdrops.
I believe the recipe was her usual jam-jam cookie. The batter was fairly dense but moist. It held a variety of flavourings: vanilla, sometimes mint or almond extract. She alternated with dates or walnut slices, one or two atop each cookie. I recall chocolate chips, never dumped into the mixture, but a few pressed into the top of each cookie as decoration.
She received a recipe from one of Judy’s friend’s, hence the name on the recipe card: Linda Metzner’s Oatmeal Date Cookies! All the recipes in Mom’s bright yellow file box held the information relevant to its origin: Alice Snyder’s Air Buns, Mrs. Carlson’s Puffed Wheat Squares.
The oatmeal cookies baked up crisp and thin. When cooled, these were iced with a generous layer of cooked date mixture and another cookie placed on top, an oatmeal cookie sandwich. They were always delicious, easy to make and a pleasure to serve.
Mom also made a multitude of cakes, large or small. Chocolate was the most frequent choice. She sometimes mixed up a chocolate batter and a white, creating a lovely marble cake. Occasionally we had gingerbread with a topping of whipped cream or butterscotch drizzled over each piece.
She often made a small, rich sour cream coffee cake. I forget the title on that card but I’m sure it came through one of her friends.
I’ve often thought of mom’s means of tracking the story of her recipes. Each time she reached for the recipe box, her mind reached back into her connection with her friends and relatives, warm, rich and enticing.
“Each time she reached for the recipe box, her mind reached back into her connection with her friends and relatives, warm, rich and enticing.”