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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Nutty as a fruitcake

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Gathering of Fruitcakes

The gingerbread peeps are at peak crisp. The three gingerbread men peeps were unwrapped weeks ago and parked on top of the microwave. I blew the dust off of one and took a bite. My teeth met resistance before the peep head snapped off and entered my mouth, rendering a crunchy, chewy marshmallow-flavored sensation.

Of course, the perfect marshmallow is rotated over hot charcoal until the outer coat becomes brown and dry before erupting into flames. After the fire goes out, I chomp through the black charred flaky surface to be rewarded with the melted white marshmallow core in the center. Hard to describe the pleasure of chewing burned paper-like charcoal bark combined with sweet liquidy marshmallow. With each bite my teeth are whitened as I get a boost of tasty energy.

Think on this: During the process the red glowing carbohydrate cube could serve as a briefly lit torch at the table. Truly on par with Mrs. Cratchit carrying the flaming Christmas Pudding to the table as in “The Christmas Carol.”

Christmas Pudding is traditionally served after the Christmas meal in the United Kingdom, Ireland and other places the immigrants have landed. Rooted deep in history, the pudding consists of a mixture of dried fruits, spices, suet, dark sugars, eggs, alcohol and other ingredients which have gone through several steaming episodes and then allowed to rest at least a month. My English friend and her mother stored their puddings for one year ready for the next Christmas. Before serving, the pudding must be steamed or boiled one final time (stove or microwave), decorated with a sprig of holly and liberally doused with brandy before being set alight and presented to the family. Rum butter sauce, cream, custard or even sugar may be used. I also like Christmas pudding. It is a cousin of my fruitcake.

Master Gardener Linda Smith gave us sections of apricot, chocolate cherry, pecan and traditional Corsicana fruitcakes in December. Twice I’ve been to the Collin Street bakery 60 miles south of Dallas. The Texas bakery was established in 1896 by German immigrant August Wiederman. It attracted the famous performers Enrico Caruso and Will Rogers. In 1914 the Ringling Brothers Circus ordered dozens of cakes to be sent as gifts and thus began the fledgling mail order business. In 1946 the McNutt family purchased the bakery. Fitting name since native Texas pecans fill Corsicana fruitcakes! The current vice president is a fourth generation McNutt. Over 1.5 million fruitcakes are sent annually worldwide, most during October and November. That’s a lot of fruitcake.

Sunnyland Farms in Georgia offered dark fruitcake (spices and grape juice) and light fruitcake (fresh orange juice), so I ordered one of each. Both cakes were at least 70% fruits and nuts. Sunnyland has been growing pecans for nearly seven decades. Perhaps next year I shall gather as many different fruitcakes as possible, including Stollen and Panettone, and hold a competition. Don’t know about the Claxton fruitcake. I do have my standards. All my poor friends and relatives may reap the results of my experiment. The gift dilemma will be solved. One thing about fruitcake—it has a long storage life and is very durable. A Tecumseh Michigan family has been passing along the same fruitcake for 141 years.

Fidelia Ford always made a fruitcake to age one year before being served. She died in 1878 after making her last cake. The family did not look upon that fruitcake as food the next Christmas, but a legacy. The hard as a rock fruitcake continues on to this day. No comparison to the Egyptian fruitcake found in a tomb estimated to be 4,176 years old. The 1910 fruitcake found in Antarctica is in almost edible condition. There are those that say this about fresh fruitcakes. What do they know?

The Japanese Mochi arrived before Christmas. The small round plump pink pillows were soft to the touch. Would they be similar to marshmallows? Slightly sweet, the mochi was chewy with the flavor of strawberry. The main ingredient in Mochi is mochigo, a japonica sticky rice that can be flavored with green tea, red beans or mango as well.

Rice comes in two types. Indica rice has long thin grains produced by plants growing near the equator. The fluffy, separate longer kernels are found in the aromatic Basmati and Jasmine varieties, most imported into the US from Thailand, India and Pakistan. Japonica rice comes in medium and short grains. This shorter rice plant (compared to Indica) is cultivated in temperate and mountainous regions. The grains are rounder, thicker and harder. Moist and sticky, the short kernel rice is the basis for paella, risotto and sushi. California produces most of the short grain japonica rice in this country.

If you want to grow rice at home, make sure there is plenty of water, heat and sun. If you want to harvest enough to actually eat, build your own rice paddy. Planting rice is easy. Getting it to harvest is tough. Rice can be directly sown or transplanted in soil. Maintain water level about 2” above the soil until the rice plants are 5-6” tall then increase water to 4” deep. This also helps control the weeds. Slowly let the water level drop until at harvest the plants no longer stand in water. This takes 4 months. When the stalks go from green to gold, time to cut and gather the seed heads attached to the stalks. Leave much of the stalk as it will go to straw and feed the soil. Allow the seed heads to dry in newspapers 2-3 weeks in a dry, warm place. Roast in a 200 F degree oven for one hour. With luck, these last two steps circumvent the threshing and winnowing processes. Remove hulls by rubbing the rice between your hands. Consider it a labor of love since this is quite strenuous and uncomfortable. Cook and eat. Easy!

Although mochi has gone the way of automation, many still make mochi by hand and hammer. In a mortar the japonica rice is pounded ruthlessly by a wooden mallet wielded by one person as another pats, turns and wets the dough over and over. A story aired in 2017 featured Mitsuo Nakatani, the fastest mochi maker in Japan. Shouting helped the timing and coordination between Mitsuo who turned the thick paste as his helper busily whacked it. Traditionally, mochi is prepared earlier in December and eaten on New Year’s Day.

Dave Barry sums it all up nicely: The easiest way to make a fruitcake is to buy a darkish cake, then pound some old, hard fruit into it with a mallet. Be sure to wear safety glasses.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.