Yes, it's getting to be that time of year. Yule logs and fruitcakes.
Way back when, Eric and I had our first Christmas together. It was a quiet day. He gave me my very first CD – Elton John's "Captain Fantastic," my favorite album of all time. He had a silver necklace of mine repaired and had the jeweler put an amethyst on it. It was supposed to be a garnet, but they did it wrong. I didn't mind, but I hope he got his money's worth. I gave him a children's book – "Love Is A Special Way of Feeling," by Joan Walsh Anglund, and a Hallmark Keepsake Ornament of two little foxes in a log. It says, "Our First Christmas Together, 1990."
But before the holiday, we visited his parents. His mother, Maxine, had a box ready for Eric's sister Marcia and her family. It was full of cheese and sausage, a very Wisconsin gift for the Missouri family. But she also had a loaf of fruitcake for them. Wrapped in aluminum foil. I thought, "God, why would you do that to them? Nobody wants a fruitcake." I turned my nose up as high as my skinny neck would let me.
Of course, there was fruitcake for all of us that night. Eric assured me it was very good. It wasn't like other fruitcake, he said. It looked pretty solid to me, brickish, black. How we suffer for love.
Eric cut me a slice. A small one. I politely put it in my mouth, preparing the I'm-not-very-hungry speech and hoping I'd be able to keep a nice face on.
But it was good. Very good, actually. I had more. And more. And more. It was delicious.
And I looked forward to it every year. I even asked for the recipe. I got that same old reply: "Oh, I don't have a recipe!" I thought she was being unnecessarily modest.
And just over five years after my first bite of her fruitcake, Maxine died, without ever having revealed her secrets to tasty fruitcake. Christmas came, the first without Maxine, and the first without my dad. I looked to Christmas sadly, missing our parents and missing the traditions that would be different that year, including the fruitcake.
I decided to try to make some, but I didn't quite know where to start. I knew she used dried fruit instead of that nasty candied fruit. Candied fruit is proof that God is vengeful.
John, Eric's dad, said he knew Maxine's fruitcake secret. Oh, happy day!
"You get a cake mix, any kind, it doesn't matter, and add a cup of dried fruit and nuts," he said. Um, sorry. A cup? Usually guys are OVER-estimating sizes.
So I got a yellow cake mix and dubiously stuffed it full of prunes, dates, dried apricots, raisins, golden raisins, walnuts and pecans. I chopped probably half a bushel's worth. I'm not kidding. I poured it into the prepared cake batter and wondered if it was enough. So I added more. And more. Until finally, it was fruit and nuts barely held together by batter. It was rather hard to stir by that point. I jammed it into pans and baked it. It took forever.
When it was finally finished, it didn't look right. Yellow cake was not the cake mix. I was disappointed.
Eric's family was all here for Christmas. His sister Laura looked at it and frowned and said it didn't look the same. She was disappointed.
I joked, though, that I would wrap it up in aluminum foil and in my best Maxine handwriting say on a slip of white paper, "Merry Christmas! All my love, Mom." Marcia said I was mean. She was maybe joking.
So we gathered and remembered and ate fruitcake. It was not the same as Maxine used to make.
But it was so close you would never have guessed she hadn't made it. It tasted just like it. It felt just like it. It stuck in your teeth just like it. It made a rock in your stomach when you ate half a loaf just like it. Not that I would ever do that.
In the following years, I tried other variations. Chocolate cake mix. Spice cake mix. Almonds. Macadamias. Chocolate chips. No raisins. Adding coffee or orange juice to the mix instead of water. Some worked, others didn't. But I always thought of Maxine when I made it and when I ate it.
So, here is Maxine's secret recipe:
Take a cake mix, any flavor, it doesn't matter. Add half a bushel of chopped pecans, walnuts, prunes, dates, dried apricots, raisins and golden raisins. Add anything else you think is good in fruitcake, but no candied fruit – because candied fruit is proof that God is vengeful. Pull out your paint-stirring drill bit and stir. Pack it into loaf pans. Bake forever. Cool. Wrap in aluminum foil. Write "Merry Christmas! All my love, Mom" on a slip of white paper and tape it on the foil. Or something meaningful and sentimental to you. It keeps well, but why would you want to save it? It's so tasty, you'll have it eaten in no time. And if you eat half a loaf at a time, you deserve what you'll get over the next day or so, and it ain't pretty. Not that I would know from experience, of course.