Saturday, September 25th:
It is the morning of Vern’s 18th birthday, and we are making a fruitcake. One of us (can you guess who?) is covered in flour. In a last minute run to the shop for extra ingredients (we decided to triple the batch), the plastic bag of flour must have snagged on the low hanging pomsité branches by the front porch, leaving a trail of white dust through the living room, into the kitchen, and all over my arms.
Vern is in charge, as she is not only the birthday girl, but a far more adept baker than I (she took Food and Nutrition courses in high school), and I happily assume the role of apprentice. I have never made a fruitcake before, and—frankly—always sort of wrinkled my nose at the idea. I mean, aren’t fruitcakes the butt of countless jokes? Are they not synonymous with tastelessness and tacky Christmas sweaters? Yet, as the apprentice, it’s my duty to adopt a humble posture of learning, so I strive mightily to push my prejuidices about fruitcakes aside.
One week ago:
Remembering that Vern’s birthday is just around the corner, I tell her I’d like to bake her a cake, any kind her heart desires. I’m sure she’ll say chocolate-caramel, or strawberry, or maybe even carrot (my personal favorite). The last thing I expect her to ask for is fruitcake. Fruitcake?! “Yeah!” she enthuses. “It’s so nice.” I think about rescinding my offer, but Vern is already bubbling over with excitement. “I’ll come over as soon as I can get a bus from town,” she affirms. “And we’ll make plenty, so we can bring some to my junior youth group, and to Rhea’s devotional, and to Emelda, and to my Granny…” I sigh, but with a smile. “Okay,” I tell her, grabbing a notebook and pen, “gimme the list of ingredients.”
The following Thursday:
I am miraculously (‘cause the grocery store inventory varies from week to week) able to find everything on the list, including the cherries. They cost a pretty penny, as they’re “imported from Italy,” but this special occasion merits the extra expense.
Here are the ingredients, assembled on the kitchen counter:
Let’s do a close-up of the cherries, ‘cause they are just so pretty.
Vern, like me, doesn’t really bother with precise measurements (“approximation is a lot more fun,” we both agree), but here is a general outline of the fruitcake recipe:
1.5 cups sugar
1 cup cocoa powder
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup melted butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup milk
1 cup cherries
1 cup raisins
some grated lime peel
Simmer the cherries and raisins together in a bit of water for about five minutes. This has the same effect as soaking in alcohol, which is what most fruitcake recipes call for. What we’re making, however, is a Bahá’í fruitcake. J Mix the dry ingredients together, then stir in the eggs, melted butter, vanilla, and milk (we used a can of evaporated milk, since that’s all that was available in the roadside shop).
Grate in some lime peel—according to how citrusy you want the cake to be—and then stir in the cherry/raisin mixture, including the liquid. This cake will be very moist and chocolaty. Grease the pan(s) with butter, and bake for…well, for however long your particular oven takes. Just keep checking. For this recipe, I think it’s best to slightly undercook the cake, ‘cause it’s absolutely delicious when it’s a little bit gooey.
A bit of background info:
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?” That was the first question we’d ask during those innumerable childhood games of “Twenty Questions” (in the absence of a television, we played this game a lot). This question always seemed like a remnant from another era. Even in the 1980’s, I don’t think I ever saw an actual breadbox in use (in our home, we kept the bread in a wooden salad bowl on top of the fridge). Yet, we never managed to come up with an adequate subsitiution for the question, as no other object with comparable dimensions seemed quite so simple and straightforward. Besides, “bigger than a breadbox” has nice alliteration.
I’m sad to say that I haven’t played “Twenty Questions” in quite sometime (I wonder if the Junior Youth would indulge me in a couple rounds of it this weekend?)…but, all these years later, I have finally beheld a breadbox: our oven. I think I laughed out loud when I was first acquainted with it. “You think we can actually bake anything in this pipsqueak of a contraption?” Roushy and I asked each other increduously. As it turned out, bake we could, and bake we did—in batches of exactly one regular-sized loaf of bread, four miniature loaves, six cookies on a slightly tilted cookie sheet, or—as we discovered during Caity Bolton’s visit in May—twelve mini cupcakes or muffins. This means that, if you’re baking for a large numbers (as we tend to do), the process becomes an morning/afternoon-long event. And, though tedious at times, this makes the end result all the more gratifying.
I have enjoyed baking for quite some time, but never have I derived such satisfaction from it as I do here. This is due in part to the challenge of trying to negotiate with a breadbox sized oven. But mainly, cuz it gives us a chance to reciprocate a little bit. As I’ve mentioned in many postings, the generosity of our neighbors in the Carib Territory is knows no bounds. This is—in part—due to the generosity of Mother Earth, who provides our neighbors with a continuous supply of yams, dasheens, figs, avocadoes, cucumbers (etc), many of which are placed into our hands and on our front porch. To say that this community keeps us wellfed would be an understatement akin to “our oven is rather small.”
We want to shower our neighbors with gifts in return. Yes, of course, the best gifts are time, and love, and a listening ear, but it also feels really good to be able to offer something as tangible as a yam. Even though we live among twelve kinds of fruit trees and a field of pepper plants, we aren’t really at liberty to give these things away, as they provide the livelihood for the family on whose land we live. Early on in our stay here, in attempts to offer a unique gift to the one of the grannies who’d just handed me a bushel of sweet potatoes, I gave her a box of tea (with individually wrapped bags of Yogi “Mayan Cocoa Spice”). She took it from me and studied it, question marks in her eyes. “It’s tea!” I said, a little too encouragingly. I explained that it’s just like Bush tea, except it’s divided up into little parcels, and you don’t have to use a strainer. The granny tilted her head, unconvinved. “Just try it,” I urged. “It’s delicious.” Several months later, when visiting this dear granny’s home, I spotted the box of tea, still unopened, resting on a top shelf. I had to laugh, acknowledging the absurdity of giving packaged tea to a woman who’s grown up with a jungle full of natural tea right in her backyard.
Happily, we were soon to discover that our wee little oven could serve not only as a dogfood holder (notice the plastic bag in the oven photograph above—we are waging war against our household mice), but as a gift producing factory! You see, there is only one other oven that I know of in all of Mahaut River, Gaulette River, and St. Cyr, which means that a gift of homemade cupcakes is gonna be a whole lot more appreciated than a box of tea. J So we bake for birthdays. We bake for Bahá’í Holy Days, and Feasts. We invite the Jr Youth over for baking afternoons. We bake to commemorate the completion of a Ruhi Book. And we bake for every granny who has ever given us a bag of sweet potatoes. Below is a photographic sampling of our baking exploits.
A baking-in-a-breadbox review, November 2009-September 2010:
December: Decorating cookies at the neighborhood Christmas party
February: Junior Youth peanut-butter cookie baking extravaganza
March: Francillia’s birthday cake (ok, this one wasn’t actually baked in the breadbox, but its initial attempt was…read about it in an earlier posting “Sounds of Francillia’s Laughter”)
May: Caity brings a cupcake tin, thus revolutionizing our baking life!
July: Colorful baking with our neighbors
September: Vern’s fruitcakes, in the miniature loaf pans
Back to last Saturday:
We have been in the kitchen, which smells of chocolate and cherries, the better parto f the day. The sun is sinking low in the sky, and I am still covered in flour. Our three and a half batches of fruitcake are finished, and it’s time for the moment of truth: the tasting. I admit, I’m a little nervous. I want to like Vern’s birthday creation, but it’s a fruitcake, for heaven’s sake. I feel a bit like the unnamed character from “Green Eggs and Ham”—I do not like fruitcake, Sam-I-Am! But we all know what happens at the end of that classic Dr. Suess tale, don’t we? Grouchy Mr. No-name finally tries the green eggs and ham…and he likes them. So much so, in fact, that he’ll even eat them with a fox, in a box, in the rain, on the train, here, there, and anywhere. Who knew? So I did it. I took a bite. And guess what—not only did I like Vern’s fruitcake, I deemed it one of the tastiest concotions ever to come out of that breadbox.