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Christmas cake an annual tradition

NANAIMO – Those who don’t like fruitcake, haven’t had a good one yet, according to VIU pastry chef.
Nanaimo’s Joanne Husband takes a slice of her Christmas Friendship Cake

Joanne Husband cuts a slice of her Christmas Friendship Cake dotted with peaches, maraschino cherries and pineapples that she made last year.

Making this recipe – well, it’s like being invited into an exclusive club.

Only bakers like Husband who are given starter – a reddish liquid leftover from the cake-making process – are able to make the cake. Even the recipe, reluctantly handed over by Husband for the article on a promise it wouldn’t be shared, must be torn up.

Husband was given the recipe by her sister-in-law more than three decades ago and she makes it every year over 30 days,  slowly adding ingredients and allowing sugars and fruit to ferment. It can last for months after it’s done.

“As long as you don’t eat it,” she said, with a chuckle.

It’s the season of Christmas cakes, which are artfully arranged on bakery shelves, stacked by the dozens on pallets or gracing family tables. It’s a holiday tradition for some and disdained by others.

But for those who don’t like fruitcake, Ken Harper, Vancouver Island University’s pastry chef instructor, says you haven’t had a good one yet.

Different cultures have traditions for festive treats – Italy has panettone, Germany has stollen and Great Britain has the fruitcake.

Since we’re influenced by Great Britain, that’s how fruitcake has become more present, said Harper, who learned how to make the holiday treat as an apprentice at Victoria’s Empress Hotel.

He said it takes a little time and the procedure is straightforward, but you can’t make it in a couple of hours like a loaf of bread. The best cake would have been made months ago, or even longer. This Christmas he’ll eat fruitcake he made in 2014.

If you just made a face, you aren’t alone. Harper says his students have a similar reaction when he tells them fruitcake needs a minimum three months. Once they are made, well wrapped and put in a cool, dry place, because of the nuts and sugar in them, the cakes will improve with time, according to Harper, who points to the fact that not long ago, no one had a fridge.

The cake is made by soaking dried fruits and nuts in liquor, like rum or brandy, for days and then folding them into a fairly dense cake batter and baking it at a low temperature. It’s then docked or forked and soaked with sugar syrup or a combination of alcohol and sugar syrup several times over several weeks.

“A fresh fruitcake isn’t all that enjoyable; you want it to sit and mellow,” he said. “A lot is that moisture still trapped in that dried fruit, kind of migrates outwards and then all these flavours from the nuts, flavours of the alcohol,those have a chance to intermingle.”

The original fruitcake was made for celebrations, like weddings and Christmas. All the products used that were expensive – the glacé fruit, the nuts – in leaner times were luxury items and for the season it was really to show the plenty you had, he said.

At a wedding, it was a way for the bride’s family to say it is doing pretty well.

“It was a way of showing off wealth and excess and making something for celebration, but it was also done out of necessity. With the effort going into it, you want it to last,” he said.

Husband remembers her mother making fruitcake for Christmas. During the Second World War in London, there wasn’t the wherewithal to make the cake and if anyone got one, or got the stuff together to make a cake, it was a big deal. Ingredients were hard to come by.

“Canned fruit was a no-no – just couldn’t get it unless you knew some American on a base who would give you a can,” she said.

But her mother always made a cake for Christmas.

“Even though the war was on, she swore up and down she was going to make a cake and she did,” Husband said, adding it may have not been as full of fruit, but she always made one. “It was Christmas. My God, you had to have a Christmas cake.”