Hand-me down recipes
Home truths ... a fruit cake like the one made by Margaret Yardley-Potter can withstand travel if properly prepared. Photo: Marco Del Grande
Elizabeth Gilbert of course needs no introduction, her year of eating, praying and loving caused a mass influx of female tourists hoping to find their own self-fulfilment/Javier Bardem. Her great-grandmother however had her own story to tell. It is of course easy to be cynical about the use of Gilbert's name but the book has a sort of quirky appeal, and Margaret Yardley-Potter definitely has her own voice. The book, At Home on the Range, was first published in 1947 when Yardley-Potter was a cooking columnist for the Wilmington Star. She later died of alcoholism, but her life, as Gilbert describes in her introduction, seemed lively and full. In a different era she might have been a celebrity food type person. The chapters of the book have titles such as "weekend guests without a weakened host" and "Mrs. Rorer's grandmother's and my just desserts". The recipes are entwined with stories, jokes and tips. Plus, the recipes may be old-fashioned, but there's a certain charm - and relevance - to their retro-ness.
Margaret Yardley-Potter's recipe for fruitcake (and some anecdotes to boot).
My recipe for fruitcake came to my husband down through four generations along with his determined chin, and that family feature undoubtedly helped preserve the faded paper intact through the years. Its vague instructions, including “Add 1 cup of distilled rose water but I never do” and “taste the batter again to see if you have enough spices,” made it at first a real terror and took years to standardize. even if two or three helpers interested in sharing the proceeds make the labor go more quickly, Mrs. Rorer would always have been too ladylike to repeat my remarks on the work involved. Still I persevere, for if at least one batch of fruitcake isn’t baked and ripened for Christmas giving, complaints from friends and relations clutter the mail by new Year’s.
These quantities fill 8 bread pans but for gifts to be mailed, straight-sided pans are better, and best of all for this purpose are new glass casseroles with a lid that can be left on while the cakes are baking and help protect them afterward when journeying.
Surround the wrapped cakes with heavy cardboard and wrap again in heavy brown paper before they go off to your friends. Bake in deep pans as small as 3 inches by 7 or cut the larger cakes in half after ripening, for wonderful “extras” to tuck in Christmas or birthday packages. Mine have gone half around the world in perfect condition. Gauge the weights of the dried fruit in the recipe by the statements on their packages. Don’t fall for the ready sliced and packaged peels—they are not as good as when cut freshly.
Use an electric mixer if possible for the eggs, butter and sugar, and roll up your sleeves before starting, for you’ll be in to the elbows.
Pick over 3 pounds of currants, 1½ pounds of seeded raisins, and 1½ pounds of the seedless variety. Cut 1 pound of seeded dates into small pieces. Shred 1 pound of candied citron and ¼ each of candied lemon and orange peel. Cut in half ½ pound of candied cherries. Mix the fruits and peels together and sprinkle over them ½ cup of rum.
In another bowl, cream 1 pound of butter with 1 pound of soft light brown sugar. Beat 12 eggs until light and add to the butter and sugar, with ¾ cup of molasses and ½ cup of brandy or rye whisky, and beat again. Sift into this 4 cups of flour and 1 tablespoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace, and ½ teaspoon each of clove and allspice. Beat again.
Pour the batter over the fruit and peel, and mix thoroughly until every piece is coated. Bare hands are the best implements here and a big cooking pot or dish pan the best container. grease the chosen pans or casseroles with oil or lard. Line the bottoms and sides with heavy brown paper and grease that, too. Pat the completed cake batter gently into its pans up to the three-quarter mark.
Bake the smaller cakes for 3½ hours and the large bread-pan size for 4 hours, in a 275° oven that has a pan filled with water on the bottom. turn out of the pans and remove the paper when hot. Cool and dribble 1 tablespoon of liquor (rum sherry, whisky or brandy, but not, I beg, gin) over each cake. Stack the cakes for at least two months in a covered crock or a tin breadbox that has been lined with waxed paper, turning them over every 2 weeks or so and repeating their intoxicating dose. Whew! that was a job. It can be lightened a little at the start by baking the cakes in shifts, for the completed batter can rest in a cool place at least 24 hours, or the prepared fruit and peel can be sprinkled with liquor and left that long, too. except the delicious cake itself, the real reward—and what a big one—of all this labor is, that made in a peaceful autumn moment a great part of your Christmas list is taken care of, inexpensively, before that harried season approaches.
Decorate the cakes before using or giving away with leaves and berries of sliced citron and candied cherries, gluing them on with a syrup of ½ cup of sugar and ¼ cup of water that has been boiled until a few drops become brittle when dropped in ice water. Wrap each cake carefully in double layers of waxed paper or cellophane before tying up in holiday tissue, and, finally, hesitate before presenting one to a temperance friend, for after his finishing a large slice of
This is an edited extract from At Home on the Range, a cookbook presented by Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury, $35. Republished with permission.