November 26, 2011

Fruitcake Redeemed

Fruitcake has a bad reputation, earned in large part, by the traditional Christmas fruitcake which begins to pop up in supermarkets and department store catalogues this time of year. That seasonal brick of bizarre ingredients: gloopy cherries in unlikely shades of day-glo green and lollipop red, gelatinous candied citron peel and ancient nuts (if any) bound together with a syrupy-sweet blend of mysterious ingredients, the traditional Christmas fruitcake can be loved only by World War II survivors for whom anything was a step up from Spam and powdered potatoes. A fan of this type of fruitcake, like everyone else who claims to hate fruitcake, I am not in the least, but I do love what I like to call 'real' fruitcake.

I first discovered 'real' fruitcake at the age of sixteen, when our family friend Catherine, who was trained as a pastry chef, gave my parents a cake as part of a Christmas basket of home-baked treats. The cake was dark, very dark, with a thick layer of marzipan frosting, and it exuded a fragrance so deep, so rich, as could only be achieved by many months' soaking in brandy. No dye-injected maraschino cherries here, only dried fruits and fresh nuts cured to a wondrous flavour which married well with the sweet almond paste - delicious, and meant to be consumed in small quantities.

Many years later, I read an article in Martha Stewart Living about fruitcakes. The article claimed to be able to change virtually every fruitcake hater's mind about this ancient dessert which in its basic form dates from seventh century Persia, and included several recipes with names like 'Chocolate Panforte' full of dried cherries and hazelnuts, 'The Dowager Duchess Fruitcake' spiked with sherry, and the 'Fruit and Stout Cake' doused weekly with 1/4 cup of Guinness (I presume the baker consumes what's left in the bottle?). The food editors' favourite fruitcake was from an Australian family recipe called 'The Backhouse Family Fruitcake.' I decided to try that one. It was delicious, and each November since, around the American Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Advent Season, I have made the Backhouse Family Fruitcake. My husband cannot imagine Christmas without a slice of this fruitcake and a glass of port, and I have come to enjoy the making and then weekly tending of what he likes to call 'the booze cake.'*

I begin by locating my battered copy of Martha Stewart Living, December 2000.

I purchase my ingredients and set aside a morning for baking.

I cut the dried pineapple, apricots, dates, and cherries with scissors, chop the almonds and brazil nuts, and mix them all together in a large bowl.

A rich batter flavoured with vanilla and rum will bind the nuts and fruit together, deliciously I might add.

The cakes are ready for the oven.

They bake for an hour and a half turning golden brown and aromatic.

After the cakes cool, I wrap them in muslin and douse them in rum. Each week I will bathe them in more rum.

As they soak up the alcohol, the nuts and fruit cure to a slice-able state, and later in December, when we are putting up and decorating the Christmas tree, we will test the first cake and enjoy a slice with a glass of port. At least my husband and I will...the kids still won't touch the stuff. "Fruitcake? Hmm... no thanks."
That's alright, all the more for us. I'm willing to bet I could change their mind about fruitcake with some chocolate panforte, which I also plan to make this year.

*My husband borrowed the phrase from our nephew Christopher who used to call Panettone, the Italian Christmas cake, 'booze cake' when he was little. It was a favourite of his.

* * *

In other news...I was thrilled last week to receive, compliments of Lucille from Useful or Beautiful, her giveaway prize of a Nelson Ball Clock. Here, I give her a blogger's extra-large thank-you. The clock is admired by the residents of our house, as well as its visitors. I know we will enjoy passing the time with it for years to come.

Happy Weekend!

November 18, 2011

A Welcome Winterlude

Last week was this particular autumn's swan song. Raging against the cold nights, the leaves on the trees injected themselves with intense colour and the blue, blue sky and the snow-capped peaks made a contrasting backdrop for the sun-fired reds, yellows and oranges as they performed their dramatic finale.

Then came the mighty winds, the famous local blow-down-the-valley-tunnel winds. The leaves gave up their clinging ways and fell to the ground, creating colourful jigsaw carpets on lawns and sidewalks. Out came the rakes, the orange garden bags, and the kids in rubber boots and gloves. Out came the hot chocolate as a reward for their help and as a remedy against freezing wet fingers. Because of course, it had also rained.

Two days ago it tried to snow, but only managed some freezing pellets that melted on contact. Unfazed, Mother Nature dropped the temperature and last night, we had snow. Waking up to an inch of white covering fields, shrubs and rooftops, we all said, 'hurrah!' Snow is bright, snow is quiet, snow is much, much prettier than the shabby, sad grey-ness of cold weather rain.  

Now in the afternoon the sun is out and the streets are shining wet with the melt. Bear Mountain looks eager to shake out her frosted fur, and there is just enough snow left on the lawn for a cat, or a ten-year old daughter, to leave her prints in.

November 10, 2011

One Unforgettable Meal

Maybe it was because I had been reading too many early 19th Century romantic novels (Jane Austen) that I decided, of all the choices on the menu, to order The Quail.The gentlemen in those novels are always going off shooting in the fall, and returning with all sorts of birds for the cook to roast over an open fire. Or, perhaps it was because, several years before, a family friend had arrived for a visit bringing with her a basket of tiny quail eggs which she pan-fried and served, four to a piece of toast, and they were so delicious that I thought the bird might be worth eating as well.

I was sharing an apartment with my sister and her husband, just off the colourful Commercial Drive in Vancouver. I was a student at UBC and living on a tight student loan budget. Eating out was a rare event, but one night my new boyfriend, my sister and her husband who was a masters student at UBC, and I decided to treat ourselves to a decent dinner at one of the Drive's many ethnic eateries. We chose a Mexican place with very plain decor - it looked like an office tacked up with cheap souvenir decorations - but with a reputation from at least one source for good food at reasonable prices.

I had eaten less than usual that day to make room for the Mexican feast and was starving by the time we arrived at the restaurant. Perhaps it was an off night for the cook because, while we all ordered our meals at the same time, we were each served at different times over the next hour and a half, with my boyfriend waiting ninety minutes for his meal. I cannot remember what the others ordered or if they enjoyed their food. Those details are eclipsed by the memory of the appearance of the small platter placed before me when The Quail finally arrived. I am not sure what I was expecting. Perhaps something like this dish described in Julia Child's wonderful book My Life in France

The patron beautifully and swiftly carved off legs, wings, and breast, and served each person an entire bird, including the back, feet, head, and neck (when eating game, you nibble everything). He had placed the breast upon the canape, an oval-shaped slice of white bread browned in clarified butter, topped with the liver - which had been chopped fine with a little fresh bacon - then mixed with drops of port wine and seasonings before a brief run under the broiler. The sauce? A simple deglazing of the roasting juices with a little port and a swirl of butter. Delicious!

There was nothing gourmet about my serving of quail. Spread-eagled, beak up on a single, large piece of green lettuce, my poor little bird was charred to the bone like some kind of burn victim from the apocolypse.  I looked down at my 'meal' and wondered what to do. In an effort to honour what I thought was some sort of Mexican delicacy, I took my fork and knife and attempted to scrape away some of the blackened flesh of which there was very little. I tasted it, and decided not to proceed. Still extremely hungry I picked at the lettuce and finished my beer.

We left the restaurant in a terrible mood, some of us still extremely hungry. I'm sure we went home and made some unromantic but satisfying toast and cheese. It was no accident that I spent the next phase of my life as an almost, very pretty nearly, vegetarian.

The other evening I assisted my pastry chef friend at her table at an annual event for local foodies. While my friend and I manned her table filled with hundreds of tiny blackberry buttercream macaroons and s'mores tarts (little graham cracker cups filled with chocolate ganache and topped with her famous homemade marshmallow which we toasted at some risk to ourselves using a butane blow-torch)  her mother made the rounds to the other chefs' tables and brought us back tastes of everything. Over the course of the evening, we enjoyed chicken liver pate flavoured with brandy on rounds of sourdough baguette, tender rare bison, bocconcini skewers with cherry tomatoes, salmon tartare, various wines and flavoured mead. I was feeling adventurous by then and as I bit into a particularly foreign-looking canape I asked what it was. "Duck Confit with two kinds of duck!", said my friend.

 "Ah", I said, and bravely finished my portion, washing it down with some lovely red wine. I think Julia Child would have approved of the duck confit, but I had to admit after tasting it that while I had made my peace with meat-birds long ago, I would never quite learn to appreciate anything more exotic than a plump, golden chicken or a wine-basted turkey.

Have a wonderful weekend, and if you go out for a meal try something new on the menu...or not.

Thank you Bill Watterson for the great comic from Calvin and Hobbes.

November 2, 2011

All Souls Day

This past week I have revelled in the deep richness of the fall foliage. Today, realizing it is All Souls Day, I remembered this poem I wrote on this day last year. It is a rare event when I write a poem, but sometimes the thoughts and words just seems to organize themselves in verses. On that day the words seemed to fall together as some sort of gift from the muse, just as the leaves are falling to the ground outside my window at this moment, with some help from the intermittent gusts of wind.

Today I am taking some time to remember
 all those souls I have known
who have moved on from this mixed bag of beauty and sorrow: 
Lea, Peter, Nana and Grandad, Granny and Grampa,
 Grampa Warren, Great-Grandad Matthew, Nana Brown,
and schoolmates 
Pat, Laurel, and Jason
For whom we now Pray.

Also those souls I did not know but think of nonetheless: 
my brother Michael who was born and died long before I came along,
(Would I be here had he lived?)
various ancestors whose DNA I share with my children
 and authors and artists who filled the treasure chest of thought and vision
I look to for inspiration and comfort -
'We read to know we are not alone,' says C.S. Lewis' student in Shadowlands

And then there are those with no one to remember them
in November we look upon the trees
singing their swan song in ruby red dress
Spirits waving in the fields
seem to say 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,' 
'Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' 
My heart reaches out to lift them up and set them free
to the place where I hope to go
someday long from now
if only someone will remember me