“Oh Buddy, I think it’s fruitcake weather,” goes the opening line to one of the best short stories ever written (and certainly a sentimental Southern favorite), “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Capote based the story on his own memories with his elderly cousin Sook, his eccentric best friend, who baked fruitcakes each Christmas and sent them to acquaintances and people they admired, including Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt at the White House.
These days, the idea of fruitcake is as stale a joke as some of the cakes that remain on the bottom shelf of the Frigidaire from last Christmas. The main appeal of fruitcake for me is the candied cherries, the red and green chewy bits of sugary former fruit. Although a candied cherry is as similar to a real cherry as plastic-encased American cheese is to aged Manchego, they still hold a visual and sentimental appeal.
Fruitcake is not a tradition in my home, although my mom makes stellar “fruitcake cookies.” (That recipe is hers and I hope to share it soon). I buy the candied cherries, however, to top Mom’s sandy, crispy, buttery shortbread. Shortbread is the easiest, most elemental cookie – butter, confectioner’s sugar, flour, salt and vanilla. When I wake up in early December and say “it’s cookie baking time,” I always start with a tray of shortbread. Like Sook and Buddy’s fruitcake, it’s a tradition, and it’s simple – I already have butter, sugar and flour out and the oven’s pre-heating.
1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
½ cup powder sugar (10X)
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Candied cherries or pecan halves for garnish, if desired
1. Preheat oven to 325. In a mixer, cream butter and sugar, then add flour gradually. Add salt and vanilla.
2. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. Using a rolling pin, gently roll out the dough to 1/4 –inch thick, in a rough rectangle. Using a sharp knife, cut into 1-inch square pieces. Press cherry or pecan halves onto each square.
3. Bake at 325 for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool. The cuts will have melded back together, but quick work with a sharp knife will take care of that. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
There are traditions to keep and traditions to make your own, like pecan tassies. This is a Southern sweet – tassie is a Scots variation of “cup” and a pecan tassie is a small cup of pecan pie filling, a tasty two-biter, rich and sweet. I make tassies each December with Georgia pecans, and they occupy a coveted corner on my cookie plates, but this year, I decided to part with tradition and use macadamias. You know the part of “Christmas Memory” where the fruitcakes are done and Sook gives Buddy and Queenie (the dog) some of Mr. Haha Jones’ whiskey and they dance in the kitchen and feel the Christmas spirit? Well, if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s to take the recipe as a suggestion, drink the whiskey and dance in the kitchen.
If you can’t get past the idea of messing with traditional Pecan Tassies, just sub pecans for the macadamias and vanilla for the rum (and tell your friends the recipe came from your cousin Sook.)
1 3-oz package cream cheese
½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon rum
2/3 cup chopped macadamia nuts
1. Combine cream cheese, butter and flour in mixing bowl. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for one hour. After one hour, remove from refrigerator and shape into 22 balls. As much as I want this recipe to make 24, I’ve never managed to get the dough to stretch that far. Press each ball into a cup of a mini-muffin pan.
2. Preheat oven to 325. For filling, beat egg with brown sugar, add melted butter, rum and macadamias. Pour into shells, just a spoonful in each because they puff when they bake. Bake at 325 for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Store in a covered container at room temperature.
Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.