Fruitcake

Making fruitcake was a very interesting process. This time I didn’t strictly follow Mrs. A.P. Hill’s recipe, because it would have made far more fruitcake than I wanted to, since I was only making enough for the family and I to try. However, I did find her recipe to have some great ideas (aside from the homemade candied orange peel, which is simply divine), which I combined with some other ideas and some thoughts of my own to make a fruitcake that was moist, delicious, full of flavors, basically everything that the store-bought cakes I grew up with were not.

For those who want to make a large amount of fruitcake and have the patience to do it entirely from scratch, I share with you the recipe from Mrs. Hill that inspired my own recipe. I’m not going to share mine here because I am in the process of creating a cookbook as a fundraiser for something my son is doing. When it is ready to go, maybe I will share a link here, so those who want it can get it.

697. Fruit Cake No. 1 – Sugar, one and a half pounds; butter, the same; flour, the same; eighteen eggs; of raisins and currants mixed, three pounds; citron, half a pound; one tumbler of brandy, two tablespoonfuls of cinnamon, the same of mace, the same of cloves, and a light teaspoonful of soda. For any fruitcake almond icing is best, as the ordinary icing becomes discolored.

I left off icing, since my cake really didn’t need it. The recipe I concocted ended up making two cakes, which was a good thing since they got eaten rather greedily by all of us. My husband made me feel very happy when he proclaimed that he would never buy fruitcake from a store again since mine was so wonderful.

Now that the holidays are over and January is in full bloom, I am looking at some of Mrs. Hill’s soup and stew recipes. Should be a tasty winter.

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Candying Orange Peel

I decided, now that I have a nice big kitchen, to make homemade fruitcake for the first time ever. I researched different recipes and went to the store full of optimism for my success. I ran into an unexpected wall: high fructose corn syrup (yech!). It seems that HFCS is now part of many of the candied and dried fruit mixes out there for easy fruitcaking. I’m a stubborn woman, and I refuse to bow to the HFCS mafia. So, I put aside the easy way and looked around some more. I ended up getting a container of dried figs and a box of golden raisins along with some hazelnuts. Ok that’s a start. There are so many different recipes for fruitcake from many parts of the world that I have no problem putting in what sounds good to me.

One thing I did want in it that HFCS gave me headaches on, though, was the candied citrus peels. They are so yummy and give fruitcake a big pop of flavor. I couldn’t find any without that disgusting stuff. Fortunately, Mrs Hill and her amazing cookbook have come to my rescue! There is in here a recipe for candied orange peel that is simple and uses readily available ingredients. After looking it over, I got out a couple oranges and checked my pantry for the rest of it. All was present and accounted for in my kitchen. So far, so good.

So this morning, once the fruit had warmed up, which makes it easier to peel, and having fortified myself with coffee, I started to work.

847. Candied Orange and Lemon Peel – Remove the pulp and inside skin; cut the peel in strips lengthwise; boil in clear water until tender. Make a syrup in the proportion of a half a pound of sugar to a pound of the peel, adding to the sugar as much water as will melt it. Put in the peel, and boil over a slow fire until the syrup candies; then take them out; strew powdered sugar over them, and set in the sun to dry; or, if the weather will not admit of this, dry them in a warm oven or stove. These will be very useful in making fruit cakes or puddings.

I decided that since I was only making enough candied peel for one cake, that a couple oranges should suffice. I spent a pleasant part of my morning thinly slicing orange peel and making my hands smell wonderful in the process. Once that was done, I put them in my smallest saucepan with enough water to cover them and let them boil for probably a good ten minutes or so. I know it was enough time to eat my toast and drink a cup of coffee. Then I used a Pyrex measuring cup and a strainer and poured out the peels and water. I decided in the spirit of not wasting anything that I am sure Mrs. Hill would approve to save the water in which the peels boiled to use as the liquid for the syrup. The water itself was a light orange and smelled great.

I let the peels and the water cool off for a while and relaxed. Then using the same saucepan, I measured in enough sugar to be in proportion to the peels. I added just enough of the orangepeel water to make it dissolve and started up the heat. (In an aside let me praise my gas stove. After seven long years of electric stove usage, having the fine flame control of a gas stove is one of the things that made doing this possible.) Once the liquid started to look clear and just a little bubbling along the edges, I added the peel and let it cook, keeping a close eye on it. I let it get very bubbly and almost foamy, my goal, from what I felt would work with the recipe, was to cook the syrup down until it was just enough to be coating the peels themselves and maybe a little more. So I kept that flame just high enough to keep the bubbling going along without making a mess of my stove. It took about 15 minutes. I wasn’t really watching the time too closely, as I was busy stirring the mixture and making sure everything stayed put. I lowered the heat a couple times so I could see the actual volume of liquid left. When there was just enough to coat the peels and the bottom of the pot, I turned off the flame and poured the results onto a cookie sheet covered with a silicon pad. (The silicon pad is another modern convenience I refuse to forswear. It makes cleanup of sticky stuff much easier, and I just don’t like washing dishes enough to be a stickler for doing it the old way.)

That was 9AM. It’s now 1PM and the peel has cooled. So I had to taste a couple to see if it was fit to put in a cake. Let me assure you that it was. It was so good I have had to stay busy to keep from eating it. It is just sweet enough with a POP of orange flavor that is out-of-this-world. Those peels are now little slivers of pure heaven. Thank you Mrs Hill! This is one for the win column.

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A Treasure Rediscovered

This blog is a story in progress. It started just a couple days ago; how long it will last, who knows? It began with the discovery – or if you will, rediscovery – of a treasure.

We just moved into a new home, and we are in the process of unpacking everything. For us, a great deal of the unpacking consists of books. We have books of all kinds, from my son’s Boynton books he’s had since he was tiny to my medical library to books that my husband and I inherited from his maternal grandmother and mostly have not read. Those books were unpacked seven years ago when we made the move to our previous residence, which was a small apartment that looked like a library exploded in it and in which we had trouble keeping track of our books, and many of them were repacked for this move with scarcely a glance at their covers. The treasure that I found in the unpacking this time is just such a book.

This book is a cookbook. One that came to us through his grandmother, but it wasn’t hers first. We have her cookbook as well, which is from the Great Depression, and is useful in many ways, but this book would have been her grandmother’s. It dates from 1867, just after the American Civil War, and was written by Mrs A. P. Hill (widow of the Hon. Edward Y. Hill of Georgia). It was written by a Southern woman to Southern women facing an extraordinary set of circumstances and quite difficult times. Just reading through the introduction to the book gave me a glimpse into their lives that no history book has ever portrayed.

We are not just now in a condition to sacrifice much to fancy or ornament; we must address ourselves to the useful and substantial. Every mother, wife, and daughter must now become a practical operator in the domestic circle. Each should be emulous to excel in neatness, industry, usefulness, and economy. The days for romance have passed, if ever they existed; the night for the dreamy visions of elegance and luxury in connection with a life of indolence has suddenly given place to the day of enterprise and industry. A crisis is upon us which demands the development of the will and energy of Southern character. Its prestige in the past gives earnest of a successful future. … The race of good cooks among us is almost extinct. What shall be done to bring back the good old times, when a knowledge of good housewifery demanded for the health and comfort of every family was not considered too low for the attentions of any lady? – from Mrs Hill’s New Cookbook, introduction by E.W. Warren of Macon, Georgia.

In the fragile pages of this book, I have found wry humor mixed with very practical advice. I haven’t read all the way through yet. I skimmed it here and there, curious about its contents, and that curiosity has me hooked. Mrs A.P. Hill has become a new-found friend. Her recipes are imprecise compared with the careful measurements of other such tomes that I own by modern chefs, but her imprecise cookery is its own charm. She gives proportions and tells you how to use eyes, nose, and ears as well as tongue and mouth to judge what is going on during the cooking process. There are no digital thermometers in her world, no electronic timers, no ovens with precise heat controls. It’s all done with the senses and some good horse sense.

I have decided to cook using her recipes and methods in my modern times. I am not giving up my stove to chop wood or my indoor plumbing, but I am going to use my senses, and her ingredients (when I can get them) and bring back a bit more of the art of cooking in my life. This journal will document how I do. Like Bilbo Baggins, I will mark down my journey – both good and ill – so that like Gandalf, you the reader may see my successes and my missteps.

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