Sunday, December 24, 2006

Eating. fruitcake.

My parents arrived in the United States some time in the early 70's. I don't know what Taiwanese food was like in those days but it must have been shockingly different from what they found here. I believe their attitude towards American food - particularly those that are holiday traditions - is firmly based on the American food that so horrified them some thirty years ago - roast beef like leather, pork chops like sawdust smothered in applesauce. (We used to make a casserole from a recipe given to my mother by a friend, which involved chicken thighs layered with rice and seasoned with golden mushroom soup from a can, orange juice, and Lipton onion dip. I think it was from the 60's). They have an aversion to meat that is overcooked, or desserts that are too sweet. Which is why I was in my teens when I first tasted eggnog at a friend's house (from a carton, slightly diluted with milk), and even older when I discovered fruitcake.

Sometime when I was in college - or perhaps shortly afterwards - a friend's mother presented me with a fruitcake, dense, sticky, and fragrant with dried pineapple and mango. Fruitcake, so I am told, is a joke, a horror, like a molded jello salad made with fruit cocktail and miniature marshmallows and Cool Whip. You're not supposed to eat it, unless you have severe masochistic tendencies. But this one made by L.'s mother (the same woman who cooks everything in butter and once made me three minature pies for Thanksgiving) was different. It was incredibly sweet and sticky (there may have been pecans involved, I can't remember) and rich - I ate it for breakfast, one thin slice at a time, with a mug of strong tea at my side - a mosaic of orange-and-yellow fruit against the dense molasses-dark cake. It lasted a long time, at least a week, because my parents could not be persuaded that it bore no resemblance to the horrific fruitcakes that were proudly presented at holiday parties in the 70's, and I had the entire cake to myself.

And then there is panettone, the Italian answer to fruitcake, made with a naturally leavened dough, so it is rather more like a rich bread studded with raisins and dried orange and lemon zest than a cake. (There is a story about how Puccini and Toscanini were friends who sometimes quarreled and stopped speaking to each other. One Christmas they were not speaking, but Puccini forgot to take Toscanini's name off the list of people to whom he sent a panettone for the holidays. So a telegram was sent - Panettone sent by mistake. Puccini. The reply came - Panettone eaten by mistake. Toscanini. Eventually they made up).

At the bakery this morning I saw slices of panettone bread pudding, golden and bright with fruit. It is dense and rich and sweet, with bits of candied citrus peel and raisins; I have warmed it in the toaster oven and it is perfect. I have recipes for fruitcake, from Laurie Colwin (black cake, made with burnt sugar), and Jeffrey Steingarten (a white fruitcake, the tradition of his wife's Mormon relatives), but I have never been able to bring myself to make them. This will do. Perhaps it will become a tradition of my own.

1 comment:

Juanita J. Sanchez said...

Sorry, I'm firmly stuck in your parents camp on the fruitcake issue. In fact, I promise to mail you any and all fruitcakes I receive. Forever.