For Marjorie Spruill
I came to making fruitcakes late in life. One fall morning, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I woke up craving a slice of my grandmother Vera’s fruitcake. My grandmother, Vera Sabiston Bell, lived in an old farmhouse in a little community called Harlowe in Carteret County, N.C.
We lived with her there sometime, when my father was overseas, but usually we lived in Havelock, a town 10 or 11 miles from her house.
That autumn day all I wanted was a single taste of her fruitcake, but I wanted it with all my heart. The problem was that my grandmother had passed away long ago by that time. She was no longer around to make a fruitcake for me or to show me how to make one for myself. I was also not at all a cake maker. I don’t think I had ever made a cake of any kind in my whole life.
My grandmother did not write down recipes, so the first thing I did was ask my family and neighbors back home if they knew her recipe. Maybe, I reasoned, her way of making fruitcake was general to the neighborhood. But it wasn’t. Or if it was, I had waited too long and too much time had passed: the people that might have known how to make fruitcakes like hers were no longer with us.
So I looked at recipes in cookbooks and on internet recipe sites. I asked friends and family for their recipes. Then I started to experiment, keeping in mind what I and others in my family remembered about my grandmother’s fruitcakes.
At first, I was woefully misguided. I would take a single bite out of the fruitcake and I could tell it was wrong, wrong, wrong. Most of my first fruitcakes were nothing like my grandmother’s.
Sometimes I could tell how far I had missed my mark without even tasting them. I knew by the smell of them cooking or the color of the batter. I ended up slicing up all those fruitcakes and making holiday gifts out of them. Generally speaking, the fruitcakes weren’t bad; they just weren’t my grandmother’s.
That was a lot of fruitcakes, too. That autumn I made just less than a dozen if I remember right.
After all that trial and error, I finally made a fruitcake that brought to mind my grandmother’s: very dark, very moist and very redolent of autumn’s bounty—a fruitcake made with pecans from our trees, local honey and lots of dried fruits and holiday spices. I knew that I was close when a forkful suddenly filled me with memories not only of her fruitcake, but also of the warmth and love that I always felt in her kitchen. That was, of course, what I wanted in the first place.
I doubt that this Christmas fruitcake will taste as good to you as it does to me, but I can say that my fruitcake has overcome nearly all my friends and family’s (many, many) jokes about fruitcakes. Now, if I didn’t share a fruitcake with them, former naysayers tell me that they would feel bereft and lacking in something that makes Christmas Christmas.
This is my recipe for 2 large fruitcakes:
Vera Bell’s Fruitcake
In a large bowl, blend 1 lb. of butter and 2 cups of honey, the darker the better. Add a tbsp. each of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. Hand-grated nutmeg really helps. Add 1 tsp. ginger and 1 tsp. salt. Stir well. Slowly pour in 4 ½ cups whole wheat flour at intervals with 1/4 to ½ cup of brandy.
Stir in 2 lbs. currants, ½ lb. raisins, 2 lbs. of sliced, dried seedless dates (sometimes I use 1 lb dates and 1 lb. dried figs instead) and 1 and ½ lbs. crushed pecans.
Oil the bottom and sides of two round bunt cake pans. Cut out brown paper bag in shape of pans and line bottom of pans. Lightly oil the brown paper too. Spoon dough into pans. Bake 3-31/2 hrs. at 250. Let cool. Take out of pans and remove brown paper. Wrap in cheese cloth soaked in brandy. Pour a little more brandy on top. Wrap in tinfoil. Every 2 weeks, doctor with another ¼ cup brandy.
I try to let my fruitcakes age for at least a month—old-time fruitcake makers say mellow. But they will last much longer. If doused with little bit of brandy every few weeks, a fruitcake is just about eternal. My daughter Vera carefully rations her fruitcake and seems to finish up last year’s fruitcake just before I’m ready to give her a new fruitcake!
I try to make enough so that I can give slices not only to family and friends, but also to some of the strangers I meet during the year. I’m thinking of people such as the lady that gave me a ride home last winter when I got caught in a drenching rainstorm downtown or the homeless guy with the nice eyes that told me I looked really good in my new bowtie when I was walking to church!
My favorite part of making fruitcakes is always the last step, when I swaddle the finished cakes in cheese cloth soaked in brandy, wrap them in tinfoil and put them away in a dark cupboard. The whole thing seems to intimate, so protective. It is like cradling a baby in your arms and then putting the baby down to sleep in a crib.
11 thoughts on “My Grandmother’s Fruitcake”
Catherine Bishir 919-744-7746
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I would match you cake vs cake, but at my 91 year age, I’ve stopped grinding them out.
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Thats a contest I couldnt lose! Wven if yours is better, I’d get to eat a whole lot of fruitcake!
I have to ask David, as currants aren’t super common in eastern NC-do you recall if your mother used them or if your use of them mimics the flavor? I would imagine dried figs would have been a staple in her time. Thank you for sharing your family tradition and culture-you clearly are a steward not only of food but true nourishment. Linwood
Morning, Linwood. Great to hear from you– and good question. Truth is, I don’t remember if my grandmother used currants or not. You’re definitely right that they’re not traditional to eastern NC. I guess all I really know is that my fruitcake has the aroma and feel and taste of her fruitcakes, but I don’t actually know if she used the same ingredients. Your jam, by the way, is life changing! Incredibly good! Finished the mulberry already!
Come get some fruitcake if you get this way before Christmas! (seriously)
Sorry, meant “grandmother” in above comment. Linwood
My mom always made a wonderful fruitcake. The recipe was from 1847 and I would stand on a stool next to her as she mixed. My job in the process was to place dried fruit on the top for decoration. She made me promise that I would continue making for my father should something happen to her. My mom did pass away thirteen years ago and I continued her tradition. Sadly, my dad has now passed and I didn’t make the fruitcake this year. I miss the tradition. The baking in brown paper. The smell of the peach brandy soaking the cheesecloth. The look of my dad receiving. I have thought of that cake many times this season and miss having a slice, as I always made a small cake for myself. I do believe I will need to resurrect that recipe for future Christmases.
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What a lovely evocation of a Christmas tradition, and of a family’s love. Thank you.
Steve and I fixed your Grandmother’s Fruitcake on Dec. 23rd. We put it in 3 loaf pans. They are covered in cheese cloth and also in tin foil and they are in a container in a dark cabinet … just waiting for the next dose of Brandy. They smell wonderful! Thank you for sharing the recipe! Betsy and Steve Olkowski.
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Wonderful! Please let me know how it turns out! And happy new year!