Turning the brittle pages of my mother's recipe book, I'm surprised by how many of the recipes are for cakes. But I shouldn't be: In my family, any occasion, or none at all, was an excuse to bake a cake. "Orange Cake." (For my birthday. Always.) "Tomato Soup Cake." (We teased our friends to name the mystery ingredient.) "Applesauce Spice Cake." (My first cake—I made it at the age of 8, with a little help and a lift from a kitchen chair, and I was so proud of what I'd done that I cried inconsolably when my family finished it off at dinner.) When I come to the page with "The Best Christmas Cake," its ingredients barely legible (though I know them by heart), forgotten chapters of my life return. It is the cake I'm closest to, even though I make it only once a year. I love the ritual dicing of the sticky fruits and raisins; the delicious messiness of mixing the batter with my hands; the first rich, mellow bite when the cake emerges, slightly boozy, from its long darkness. It would have pleased my mother to know that her fruitcake became my "best" cake, too.
1940 We're only going to the grocery store, so why am I told to put on my best dress? Why is my mother wearing her church clothes and the fancy feathered cloche that looks like a rumpled blue jay on a nest? Because S. S. Pierce Co. is no A&P. I stare at the lavish cakes and pastries and the butchers in their straw hats, black bow ties, and immaculate white coats. I've never been in a grocery store so grand, and I'm not sure my suddenly flustered mother has either.
A courtly man approaches and bows slightly. "May I help you, madame?" "Holiday fruits, please," she says in the stilted manner my sisters deride as "putting on airs," though in kinder moments they say it's her way of handling uncomfortable situations. He guides us down aisles of exotic China teas, English marmalades, and tins with mysterious contents. Terrapin stew. What could that be? Arriving at the candied fruits, I catch my breath with pleasure. Are these the sugarplums that dance through Christmas dreams? Happier now, my mother finds her natural voice. "Two pounds of the cherries and two more of the pineapple. I'll take lemon and orange peels, too, perhaps a pound of each, and half a pound of citron. Do you have Muscat raisins?" Of course they do. S. S. Pierce has everything anyone would ever ask for, even a doorman dressed like a character in A Christmas Carol.
Tagged as "the dreamy child" who can't be trusted with a knife, I watch wistfully as my mother cuts up the glistening fruits. But the best part comes when I help mix them into the batter, plunging my arms into the spicy mixture all the way up to my elbows and licking off bits of cherry and citron. Baked, cooled, and swaddled in cheesecloth soaked in brandy, the cake is put away to age in a dark corner of the pantry where I forget all about it. When it reappears, buried under marzipan and a glossy icing that drips icicles down the sides, it lights up a table already decorated with mince tarts, Swedish butter cookies, miniature plum puddings, and Aunt Alice's handmade ribbon candy in stripes and pastels. Whenever I dwell on the lean times my family went through, I check myself and remember how rich we were one Christmas.
1959 In my second year at Gourmet, the editorial staff are dreaming of a Smithfield ham just like the one the magazine's editor and publisher, Earle MacAusland, had given us last year. "No gifts for you this year," our Scrooge of a business manager says with a mean smile. But Mr. Mac does remember everyone. As he hands out pecan fruitcakes from a favored Texas advertiser, we thank him profusely and privately wonder what to do with them. Barbara has a plan. She offers hers to the first person she runs into on West 57th Street outside our office in the Plaza Hotel. He looks at the label and says, "No, thanks."
How bad can it be? I've never tasted commercial fruitcake, so I take mine home and cut two slices. My husband chews his thoughtfully. "I guess it's okay, if you like pecans." But it's not okay. It's horribly sweet and sticky with corn syrup. Worse, the fruits have a harsh chemical taste, as if they've been doused with a cleaning solution. I can do better than that, I think to myself, so why not try? I haven't even eaten fruitcake since leaving home, but I have my mother's recipe. The chunky fruits in garish colors from the neighborhood Gristedes aren't very appealing, but as I dice them finer I feel an unexpected surge of happiness. My husband looks into the kitchen. "Are you making something with those?" he asks hopefully. That's a surprise. He hasn't shown much interest in my baking since I joined Gourmet and began experimenting with elaborate Viennese and French cakes. My masterpiece, a gorgeous marjolaine that I fancied even Fernand Point would have admired, drew the polite response "That must have taken a long time to make."