Unlike last month's turkey (or tofurkey) fest, the December holidays are more about the larder than the dinner table. This is the season of the cocktail party, the buffet, of late-afternoon teatimes and hot toddies, steamy mugs of something sweet to take the chill off. And best of all, fruitcake.
Oh, you laugh. But not when you take a bite of June Taylor's handmade Christmas cake, made for this time of year and wrapped in thick letterpress-printed paper. Taylor, who is English and thus has a good-fruitcake gene that most Americans lack, is best known for her stupendous jams, but at this time of year her elegant, moist little cakes are reason enough to track her down at the Saturday morning Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco. (They're also available for ordering online, and wouldn't I just love anyone who handed over the $33, plus shipping, to send me one.)
Back when I lived in Bay Area, I always paid with the virtuous feeling that I was buying a gift for someone else. Then I would get home and remember how almost everyone I knew recoiled in green-cherry horror from the very idea of fruitcake. And then one day in mid-December, on a chilly late afternoon after a long walk, when there were presents to wrap and cards to address, the cinnamon-and-orange spiked tea would be scooped from its tin and the brandy-soaked cheesecloth around the fruitcake peeled off. And steaming cup in hand, the nostalgic flavors of the holidays would waft over me like the paper snowflakes wafting down through the blue light at the end of the first act of The Nutcracker ballet. Fruitcake should be English, I believe, or at least made by someone with some familiarity with tea strainers and Evelyn Waugh.
One thing I haven't done, at least not successfully, is to make my own. Every cook and reader I know views the Jamaican black cake, described with such single-minded verve by Laurie Colwin at the end of More Home Cooking, her last book of food essays, as a personal grail. Colwin published the recipe, attributed of her daughter's Jamaican nanny, while cheerfully admitting that she'd never actually made it. Since, sadly, Colwin died in 1992, the question of whether the recipe works, and what Colwin's nanny's version actually tasted like, will never be fully answered. In the piece, Colwin makes the black cake sound so indescribly delicious that most food people would trade a week in Tuscany with Mario Batali to taste it, even if it takes a month to make and calls for a whole bottle of sweet kosher wine and another one of rum.
The stumbling block, for me, isn't the issue of keeping the ants out of the five pounds of Manischevitz-soaking raisins. It's the step when you have to cook a pound of brown sugar with a little water until, as Colwin says, it "begins to turn black. You do not want to overboil. It should be only slightly bitter, black and definitely burnt." This is a direction that only makes sense when someone whose family has been doing this for generations is hanging over your shoulder telling you what to do. How burnt is a little burnt? How much black is good, and how much more black means throw it out and start over? The alternative is burnt sugar essence, a magical West Indian ingredient that I have never, ever been able to find. Long annual threads on this very topic trail through food bulletin boards like Chowhound at this time of year; you can hear the longing in the begging questions.
But why this recipe? Plenty of food writers make extravagant claims for this brownie recipe or this mac-and-cheese technique. During a recent Q&A about truth in food writing, Vogue writer Jeffery Steingarten freely admitted that exaggeration is part of his repertoire. A whole magazine, Cooks Illustrated, is predicated on the fact that science trumps tradition, and that if you treat the kitchen like a lab and keep making the same recipe, adjusting for one varient ingredient or technique each time, you will eventually come up with the SINGLE BEST WAY to make pancakes or chicken caccittore. Not that it isn't fun to read Cooks Illustrated; it's fun the way reading about polar exploration in the days before Vitamin C pills and Gor-Tex is fun: because someone else (not you) is doing all the hard work. But actually, for all of Cooks Illustrated's self-righteousness, this dogged American belief in perfectability falls apart in the kitchen. Even if you do find the perfect pancake recipe, will you always wake up happy to eat them? What if everyone else in the house wants cereal instead? What Colwin's piece speaks to is a more universal wish: safe home, warm hearth, extended families full of love, cross-cultural gifts that are generously given and generously received.
But black cake, or fruit cake, isn't the only food to carry the promise of holiday cheer. A bowl of brilliant orange clementines is a harbinger of the snappy winter season, the little spray of sharp-scented oil that pops off the skin capturing the smell of December in California or Spain. At this time of year, shopping, rather than cooking, is the fun part. It's the time to buy skinny, crunchy Swedish ginger cookies and and their fat, round spicy German cousins. And for slow sipping from a small glass, egg nog from Straus Creamery, lush and creamy as a woman's back in an Ingres painting.
Like, alas, most fruitcake, most eggnog is revolting, a simpering mess of thickeners and gums and fake rum flavorings. Straus's version is pale and subtle, lovely on its own or bolstered with a shot of rum or brandy. Dusted with a little nutmeg, the very taste of it is like the promise of snow.