Glorious FruitcakeWednesday, December 16, 2009
I love fruitcake. And I'm happy to say that I've never had one from the grocery store which is where I'm hoping most people get a misunderstanding about how one is supposed to taste - which is...fantastic. Glorious, even.
My friend Alan sent me a link to a story in the NYT yesterday about the layer cake tradition in Alabama:
They’re currency, comfort and status. Everyone knows whose cakes are tender and whose consistently reach 12 layers or more.
“Three or four weren’t nothing to brag about,” said Franklin Peacock, who has been eating layer cake here since the 1930s. “Five or six is about where you’d want to start talking about your cake.”
Martha Meadows, 77, learned to bake 15-layer cakes from her mother, who cooked each layer one at a time in a cast-iron hoe-cake pan. The pan now lives in a kitchen cupboard in the small house in a cotton field between this town and Slocomb, Ala., where Mrs. Meadows has lived for 34 years.
I was introduced to Mrs. Meadows by Franklin Peacock’s son, the chef Scott Peacock, who was raised on southeast Alabama layer cake. He now lives in Atlanta, where he runs the Watershed restaurant, but he has recently been traveling home to record stories from cooks in their 80s, 90s and 100s for an oral history project.
He is forever bragging about the layer cakes from Hartford, his hometown. I met him in Alabama to see for myself.
Especially at Christmas, the cake ladies of Alabama distinguish themselves with cakes whose recipes are a century old.
The little layer cake is perhaps the showiest of the extensive southern Alabama repertory. There is always a poundcake on the table at Christmas, as there often is year-round. And, usually, there is a fruitcake, like the simple ones with pecans and two kinds of dried fruit that the members of the Sardis United Methodist Church are making this season. A core group of about eight cranked out 1,000 of them, selling various sizes for $5 a pound. A couple of years ago, they made enough to buy a new grand piano for the church. Last year, the cakes helped pay to remodel the church kitchen.
There is, of course, coconut cake with its fluffy frosting whipped from egg whites and boiled sugar, with fresh coconut pressed into its sides. And certainly, there are Lane cakes, made with an 1898 recipe named after Emma Rylander Lane of nearby Clayton, Ala., who called it her prize cake. The cake was a childhood favorite of President Carter, whose hometown of Plains, Ga., is a few hours’ drive from Clayton. Harper Lee, who grew up in Monroeville, Ala., mentioned Lane cake in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Time to make a Lane cake. And a layer cake. And a caramel cake too...