By DIANE R. CHODAN
OBSERVER Staff Writer
I collect fruitcake jokes, and my friends and family delight in pointing them out to me. A couple of Christmases ago, my niece even sent me an inflatable fruitcake as a joke.
OBSERVER Photo by Diane Chodan
Fruitcake making has been a long-standing tradition for Diane Chodan.
I can appreciate the jokes because fruitcakes are not my favorite holiday treat although as a child my mom's oldest brother, a baker, used to send us fruitcake in a beautiful tin.
My favorite treats were cookies that my mom used to make. Her gingerbread cookies were what I liked best, closely followed by fig cookies, cherry dainties, Mexican wedding balls (also known as Russian tea cakes), and her own cut-out sugar cookies. We had containers filled with dozens and dozens of cookies.
What I remember most about Christmas was "helping" to make the cookies. Mom mixed the dough and in the case of the sugar cookies and the gingerbread men rolled it out (after chilling). My older sister Louise and I cut out the shapes, trying to lay the cutters as close as possible to avoid wasting the dough. For the gingerbread we had a large gingerbread man cutter and a smaller one. For the sugar cookies we had quite a few differently shaped cutters and my sister and I tried to make equal amounts of all the shapes, except for the star, the bell, and the crescent moon which always seemed to fit in the odd spaces.
Mom would brush the sugar cookies with beaten egg white and we would decorate them with colored sugar before putting them in the oven. That led to more sisterly discussions - what colors of sugar looked best, could we try two different colors together, is a green Santa Claus silly or a good idea?
Gingerbread men were decorated after they cooled. Mom would make icing and color it whatever color we chose that year. She had a metal decorator that held the icing. Different tips could be used. We always used the straight tip to decorate the gingerbread men. Since we only had one decorator, my sister and I would take turns. We made each gingerbread man different. My sister might decide her man needed a pocket and draw that. When my turn came, I might give mine eyeglasses.
We didn't really argue during this time, but we spent hours and hours making and decorating cookies. Many years later I asked Mom how she had the patience to put up with it.
She laughed. "You weren't getting into any trouble, and I didn't have to eat them if they came out bad."
When I spent a semester in Antwerp, Belgium, during college, Mom sent me some of her recipes, and my roommate and I made cookies for our Belgian family. (They were amazed. They usually got very beautiful desserts at a patisserie, and never baked).
After my mother's good example, why have I been baking fruitcakes instead of cookies for the past 37 years? Christmas time as an adult was very different from my childhood. When I started making fruitcakes, I had just begun working for the New York State Department of Labor in Rome, N.Y., in what was known on the street as "the unemployment office." This was "back in the day" when those claiming benefits reported to the office in person. Claims were taken in the local office and transmitted to Albany by mail.
Lines were long, especially during the winter when seasonal workers were collecting benefits. In addition, many of the factories had a Christmas shutdown, and workers often did not get paid for the entire week so they came in to claim.
Then there was the phenomenon, we called "double reporting days." If a holiday fell on a weekday, those who normally reported that day would be given another day to report so that they received their benefits. In essence it meant that we had to process five days work in four days. Because of this situation, not much leave was granted around holiday time. I personally thought I would rather just work the holiday so the workload could be spread out.
My boss did the best he could for us, staying himself and allowing us to take an hour or two on Christmas Eve once the reporting was over. Even so, I found I had little time and even less energy to do much in the way of holiday preparation.
Fruitcakes were something I could bake ahead of time and store easily. I couldn't spend the time required for cookies but at least I could have something home baked. I had a holiday on Veterans Day and my husband did not. That became my official day to bake fruitcakes. I took my time, put on some music, and enjoyed the smell of the baking fruitcakes. After my daughter was born, I continued to bake on that day. As she got older, she would help me. She learned math from this since we doubled and sometimes tripled our recipe depending on demand. She was a good helper, cheerfully chopping dates or candied pineapple.
Since I personally do not like citron, I looked for a recipe without, and found one containing dates, raisins, candied cherries and pineapple, and whole Brazil nuts. The batter contains molasses and orange juice.
The first year, I baked a couple batches in loaf pans. After the loaves cooled, I used a pastry brush to apply ginger brandy, wrapped them in foil, and bagged them in plastic bags. I reapplied the brandy a few times. Just before the holiday, I cut them in half (since the loaves were large). I gave them to co-workers and my family when I could finally get to visit them.
Over the years, my methods evolved and improved. I found I liked blackberry brandy better than ginger. I bought aluminum pans, and now use two sizes, a large loaf pan and a smaller size. I stored the the cakes right in the pan and then in baggies. That worked fine except if the cake was stored too long. Holes develop in the pans, probably due to the alcohol. To counter this, at the suggestion of my husband, I now bake them, pop them out of the pans, wash the pans, and wrap the fruitcakes in plastic wrap before putting them back in a pan.
At one point, my sister gave me a huge stainless steel bowl. I could easily do double and triple batches at one time. My sister also gave me some large plastic covered containers in which I store the fruitcakes. I no longer put baggies over my fruitcakes until I actually give them away. The plastic containers seem to hold the moisture so I don't have to brandy the cakes as often. However, care must be taken to make sure the containers are sealed. One year, my husband came home and I accused him of drinking. The truth was that a corner of a container was open and that was the alcohol I smelled.
One of the best innovations came from my husband. He suggested using a spray bottle to apply the brandy. This is much neater than using a pastry brush. The only caution is to do this over the sink, as of course I discovered. Brandy is sticky.
I have learned not to gift a fruitcake unless I first ask. That said, there are many people who really like mine. One of my friends liked them so much that she said she would give me an extra large plate of her cookies if I made a large fruitcake for her. Her cookies were great, and solved the cookie problem.
Another friend always says, "Now it's really Christmas" when I deliver his. A custom my daughter and I had while I lived in Rome was to go to midnight mass and give the organist a fruitcake. Cecile was my daughter's piano teacher. She and her husband are true fruitcake fans. I still send her one.
Times change. Eventually I changed jobs within the Department of Labor and it was possible for me to have more time during the holidays. I moved back to Dunkirk. I retired. My daughter is grown, married, and now has two young daughters. A few years ago, I planned to stop making fruitcakes.
I told my friend Pat my plan when we were attending a performance. She was driving that day. After the performance, she stopped at the market and said. "Let's go. You have time now, and I want my fruitcake."
So bring on the jokes. Fruitcakes still hold second place to my mom's gingerbread men for me. Still they are my tradition, something I hope brings happiness to my family and friends.
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