The Best Christmas Cake Ever

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But he sniffs the air expectantly as the warm, spicy smell of fruitcake drifts through our apartment. He hangs around when I turn the cakes out to cool. "Be careful," he warns. "They look fragile." He offers to wrap them in cheesecloth and asks me every other day if they're ready to eat. By New Year's Eve, they really still need more aging, but I frost one anyway, and we welcome 1960 with fruitcake and port. "Let's make this an annual tradition," he says as I cut him a second slice. I smile.

1960 I know good ingredients matter, but I never made the connection with fruitcake until Jane Montant, Gourmet's librarian [later editor-in-chief, from 1980 to 1991], shared a thrilling discovery. "You'll love the seasonal shop I found on Third Avenue," she says one November day. "It hasn't a name, but I call it Signora Dolce's. You'll see why." As we peer into the dim interior, a cluster of wooden barrels filled with the most beautiful candied fruits I've ever seen comes into focus—cherries so red they glow in the dark; thick halves of orange and lemon; translucent shards of citron the color of fine jade; pineapple slices shimmering like gold—all cloaked in a thick syrup. "Pure sugar," Jane whispers. "It's almost medieval."

A shy Italian woman steps out of the shadows. Reaching into a barrel, she fishes out two cherries and hands one to each of us. Jane and I take a bite and exchange astonished glances. Where do such extraordinary fruits come from? Sicily, it seems, which is the woman's home, too. I buy pounds of everything—more than enough to keep us in fruitcake through spring and plenty for holiday breads and family gifts. I mail small cakes off to my brother and sisters and imagine how pleased they will be. Weeks pass without a word. Did the cakes go missing in the mail? Making a discreet inquiry, I'm crushed to learn they don't like fruitcake and never have. (Six years later, one sister shows me hers, still in its original wrapper, in the back of her refrigerator.) "I don't think anyone even tried it," I wail to a sympathetic friend. "I'm no fan of fruitcake either," she admits, "but I'm willing to try yours." I watch anxiously as she eats a small piece, and another, then pauses as if choosing her words carefully. "What can I say? It's phenomenal. I've never had fruitcake like it. Please, next year, I'll pay for the fruits if you make it for me." And I do.

1961 Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cook Book is hailed as a best seller even before it reaches bookstores. When a copy arrives at Gourmet, where the author worked briefly as a receptionist and answered reader mail, we pore over the pages with grudging admiration and agree that it's the best all-around cookbook in years. Not that there aren't surprises. Reading through the fabulous cake collection, I'm startled to find a "Nova Scotia fruitcake" almost identical to mine. "I hate to disappoint you," my mother says when I phone her, "but it's not an old family recipe, at least not ours. I probably found it in McCall's." Now I have a hunch the fruitcake originated with Helen McCully, for many years the food editor of McCall's—and a good friend of Claiborne's.

1963 Six days before Thanksgiving, I race over to Signora Dolce's, hoping to get back to the office before my lunch hour ends. But I wait interminably as a woman ahead of me carries bag after bag of fruits to her station wagon, which the police have ticketed twice. She apologizes. "I'm shopping for my friends in Darien." Swell, I think, and I'm late for work. By the time I leave, I'm frantic as I hurry across Lexington Avenue and see a large crowd forming. Is there a fire? A traffic accident? A hysterical woman runs past me screaming, "They shot him! The President is dead!" Swept up in a swarm of sobbing strangers clinging to one another for comfort, I refuse to believe what I'm hearing. But the tear-streaked faces at the office tell me the news is true.

Eating little and sleeping less, my husband and I huddle before our small television as the assassination story unfolds and plays over and over again. When I can't bear to watch the funeral cortege one more time, I escape to the kitchen, my comfort zone, and lose myself in chopping candied fruits. As I run my fingers through the luminous pieces, the darkness lifts a little. But the grieving isn't easily put aside. Like everyone we know, we skip Thanksgiving entirely and barely acknowledge Christmas. I make the gesture of serving fruitcake on New Year's Eve, but it leaves a bittersweet taste.

1967 We've moved with our 8-year-old squirrel monkey from a studio apartment in New York City to a rented house in California that feels like a mansion. I walk back and forth through the empty rooms and sun-filled kitchen marveling at the space, the mountain views, and a yard lush with fruiting citrus trees. In a scene reminiscent of W. C. Fields and his dog in It's a Gift, the three of us have breakfast on the patio with freshly squeezed tangelo juice, the monkey drinking his from a tiny measuring cup. Autumn is so much like summer that I'm still padding around in shorts and bare feet when I remember it's fruitcake time. In town, even the tony market where the wealthy send their maids to shop stocks a mediocre mix of candied fruits. I buy them out of desperation, wondering if an extra jigger of rum will mask the sulfur taste. (It doesn't.)

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