Editor’s note: The writer is very familiar with fruitcakes. His wife is the baker of the holiday tradition which their friends and family look forward to receiving each year.
SIDNEY — Christmastime finds a lot of folks busy with a variety of activities. For some it’s starting a new ritual associated with the holiday season. For others it’s something they look forward to year after year that is steeped in family tradition often going back several generations.
For Darlene Clayton, of Sidney, one of those time-honored traditions is making home-made fruitcakes. She has been making her version of the tasty Christmas treat for nearly 30 years and those who are familiar with her little cakes anxiously await their arrival every year about this time.
It all began years ago when she and her husband Matt were visiting some of his friends in Perry County in southeastern Ohio, Darlene recalls the fruitcakes coming up in conversation.
“While we visiting Harold and Diane in New Lexington, Matt asked Diane if she still made those wonderful fruitcakes he had sampled in the past around Thanksgiving Day. Matt recalled enjoying the fresh-from–the-oven cakes after a long day of grouse hunting noting it was a welcome treat after coming in from the cold and one of the best cakes he’d ever tasted. Diane said she still made the cakes every year, and asked if I would like a jar of ‘starter juice’ so I could try making a batch later in the year for Christmas.
“After hearing the details about the process of making the cake I was intrigued and told her I’d like to try it, so she pulled a jar of the starter juice from her chest-freezer and I copied down her recipe. The juice has active leavening in it not unlike fermenting wine and will keep indefinitely especially in a freezer so having a little extra on hand was not unusual and thankfully Diane had plenty to share,” Darlene said.
The starter juice had been passed down from generation to generation and dated back farther than anyone could remember but was traced back as far as the late 1800’s on Diane (Dodson) Barker’s side of the family; that in itself made Darlene anxious to give it a try.
The entire process to preserve the fruit for the cakes takes 30 days so Darlene starts the cakes around the second weekend in November which allows plenty of time to make the cakes before Christmas. It also allows her time to box a few up to ship to friends and family out of state.
“I put the starter juice in a gallon glass jar and add the peaches and some sugar to get things going,” Darlene said. “It’s important to keep things clean and when stirring the mixture daily, it is necessary to use a wooden spoon. I keep the jar covered with a small towel held in place by a rubber band.
“After 10 days I add the pineapple and again more sugar which feeds the leavening and in the process preserves the fruit. In the end the sugar is consumed. Lastly the cherries are added in the same manner as the peaches and pineapple. At the end of 30 days the fruit mixture is ready and the strained fruit is added to a cake mix and baked.”
While any size or shape of baking pan will work Darlene prefers the smaller loaf pans measuring approximately 6-inch by 3-inch.
“I originally used the larger sized loaf pans but my mother, Rosie Kinninger, suggested a smaller pan so as to get more cakes from each batch. The smaller cakes also are about the perfect size for an after-dinner treat for four to six people or can be divvied up for a few smaller portions to have with a morning cup of coffee. Each jar of fruit makes three batches of six cakes for a total of 18 of the smaller-sized cakes. One cake mix is required for each batch of six cakes.”
Though any variety of other fruits and sometimes nuts can be added to the cake, Darlene limits hers to peaches, pineapple, and maraschino cherries so as to make the cakes more appealing to the average person most of whom seem to prefer the simplistic version.
“I do sometimes add English walnuts or pecans but prefer to keep it simple as experience has taught me that most people don’t want anything that remotely resembles the store-bought version they shy away from. The usual reaction I get when offering the cake to someone for the first time is ‘No thanks, I don’t care much for fruitcake,’ however, after trying a bite of one of mine they say, ‘wow, I’ve never had fruit cake that tasted like that’ and before you know it another fruitcake is gone.” Darlene said.
Darlene said the ingredients for the cake part of the recipe has changed over the years but the process used to preserve the fruit is the same.
“Obviously the past generations did not use boxed cake mixes or pudding mix in their cake recipes and there’s no set rules on how the cakes have to be made, but for the sake of time and convenience I prefer the more modern method especially when baking several dozen cakes at one time,” Darlene said.
After baking and cooling the cakes on a wire rack, each is individually wrapped in plastic wrap and aluminum foil if they will be stored for a while.
“The cakes will keep nicely for several weeks and we even tried keeping one for a couple of months to see what would happen and surprisingly it was still very good,” Darlene said, noting the cakes are not usually around long enough to worry about storing them for longer periods of time.
Darlene sometimes packages the cakes in festive wrapping when giving them as gifts and her daughters, Christine and Sarah, prepare hand-decorated paper bags to put the cakes in.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but a labor of love at our house, the reward of knowing the cakes are truly enjoyed and appreciated makes it well worth the effort,” Darlene said.
While the fruitcakes are more of a seasonal thing associated with Christmas at the Clayton home, Darlene pointed out that anytime is a good time for making the cakes. “Though I make my cakes in November or December I suppose anytime would work,” she said.
Anyone interesting in learning how to make Darlene’s 30-day fruitcake may contact her at email@example.com.
The writer is a regular contributor to the Sidney Daily News.