Before I met my friend Tom six years ago, I never made homemade Christmas gifts. Sure, I’d get the bright idea to sew a quilt for a friend or knit a scarf for my husband, but those ideas occurred just after Thanksgiving when time seems to melt faster than a Hershey bar on a car dashboard. I’m still not very organized, and my friends close to home know not to expect pretty jars of homemade mincemeat or boxes of fudge. But Tom is different.
An opinionated, wiry 50-year-old with a fierce romantic streak, Tom and I met when he took a job at the local wine store where I worked. In between our fervent discussions of the best rock’n’roll band (“It’s gotta be the Stones, Mary. Don’t ya think?” he would argue), or which country had better food, Italy or France (Italy, we both agreed), he shared stories about the gifts he made (or had made) for his wife, Linda, with whom he’d reconnected after 25 years apart and recently married. One Christmas he commissioned a tea set from Wild Yam Pottery in Hampden; on her birthday, he baked banana bread and bought glitter and glue to make a card. The gifts had to be handmade, he explained dramatically, because that way they truly came from the heart.
Tom extended his creative generosity to his co-workers, and that first Christmas we were friends, I arrived at work to find homemade shortbread and a bottle of hand-crafted olive oil from California, wrapped in tissue paper and bound in ribbon sitting on my desk. The following year, I discovered that Tom loved fruitcake, and I decided that would be my gift to him.
Some people might consider fruitcake an insult, a gift to be tossed out with the Christmas wrapping detritus— and considering my previous experiences baking them, there was every reason to be wary. As a girl, I paid no attention during the rare times when my mother and grandmother made fruitcake, preferring instead to play checkers with the unnaturally green and red glaceéd cherries that glowed like traffic lights.
But after returning from a college semester in Scotland where I’d developed an affinity for boozy slices of spicy fruitcake, I asked my grandmother if she would teach me how to bake one. The night before we planned to bake, we dumped containers of candied pineapple, cherries and raisins into a large bowl and poured a bottle of Jim Beam over it. By the next morning, we were so overpowered by the bourbon fumes that infused the kitchen that any further memories of cake baking have been obliterated.
Years later, I attempted a white fruitcake with hazelnuts and dried figs that seemed more sophisticated than the molasses and candied fruit variety. The recipe called for three sticks of butter and seven eggs, separated, buoying my hopes of a light and buttery cake. But I got distracted while the cake was in the oven and overbaked it. Then, because the cake was already imperfect, I was lazy about basting it in rum. The result: a crumbly, brown fiasco.
I kept my fingers crossed that my third fruitcake attempt, the one for Tom, would be my lucky break. I scoured cookbooks and magazines, finding recipes that called for Guinness stout or coffee, dried cherries and currants, dates and sultanas. I eventually decided on one from Jacques Pépin because it challenged me to make my own candied citrus peel and because it included dried peaches, apricots and pears, an appealing combination of fruit.
On a chilly Wednesday afternoon, I skinned a grapefruit, a tangerine, a lime and a lemon, diced the peel into bits and blanched it twice in boiling water. Then I boiled the peel in sugar syrup before adding the dried fruit and a slug of rum.
As I mixed the batter, I thought about the Trappist Monks who see work as a form of prayer, and use their hands to farm, build wooden caskets— and yes, make some darn good fruitcake. I thought about the handmade gifts that had been given to me, like the angora-trimmed red wool cardigan a neighbor made, which even as a little girl made me feel glamorous. I wondered if a gift of food could create as long-lasting a memory. But after I baked the cake and marveled at its brilliant egg-and- butter-induced yellowness, I worried less about creating a memory and instead felt satisfaction of work well done. Tom would love it— and remember it— however it turned out. And, of course, he did. When I brought the fruitcake to work, Tom immediately cut a slice, sampled and was momentarily speechless before launching into prose the color of violets.
In the three years since Tom has moved to Boulder, we’ve been unreliable about our present exchange. One year I received a bottle of Colorado honey. The same year I sent a small quilt (all right, it was a month after Christmas, but …). Last year, I bought the fruitcake ingredients, but ran out of steam and didn’t make the cake.
Not this year, though. Just after Thanksgiving, I’ll trek to Jeppi’s Nut Co. in Timonium to buy fresh supplies of dried apricots and pears, and set aside the afternoon to simmer fruit peel. I’ll bake the cake, wrap it in rum-soaked cheesecloth and leave it to ripen in an old Esskay sausage can. Then, weeks later, I’ll pull it from its hiding place under the little table in the dining room, replace the cheesecloth bandages with layers of plastic wrap and aluminum foil, tuck it in a box, wrap it in brown paper, and post it to Tom in Colorado, my homemade Christmas offering to a friend.