Comfort food #2: Mum’s fruit cake

Comfort has a smell. Sometimes it’s an aroma so potent it can knock you a six. When I first gathered supplies to recreate my mother’s unfortunately named ‘boiled fruit cake’, I was not ready for it.  Standing at the stove, my saucepan filled with a buttery mound of fruit and a blend of sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, I waited for it to boil. Almost immediately the room was enveloped by the most heady fragrance and, without a moment’s warning, I was transported — I was back in my mother’s kitchen, a boy with wooden spoon in hand, mum looking over my shoulder. It was a moment … and extraordinary. 

To be honest, fruit cake is not my natural thing. Regardless, when I think of foods I most associate with comfort, this one is up there.  And it’s all to do with smell. Perhaps it’s like Nigel Slater’s affection for that rather tragic British dessert. “You can’t smell a hug. You can’t hear a cuddle. But if you could,” he says, “I reckon it would smell and sound of warm bread-and-butter pudding.”

Clearly, the power of aroma is no respecter of good taste, and neither is the scent of memory marginal to comfort. It is central. The nose holds memories we might otherwise forget.  The French essayist Marcel Proust (1871–1922) reflects on the powers of taste and smell in remembering: 

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone — more fragile but more enduring, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful — remain poised for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

So, here’s to the smell of recollection and comfort — my mum’s entirely unoriginal recipe for boiled fruit cake. Slightly adapted, of course.

I do miss you, mum. 

Here’s what you need

  • 500 grams of mixed dried fruit according to your taste: I used 200 grams of sultanas, 100 grams of currants, 100 grams of mixed peel, and 100 grams of glacé cherries
  • 1/2 cup of walnuts
  • 1 teaspoon of mixed spice 
  • 1 teaspoon of bi-carbonate soda
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 125 grams of butter
  • 1 cup of water
  • 2 eggs, whisked
  • 1 cup of plain flour
  • 1 cup of self-raising flour

Here’s what you do

  1. Preheat your oven to 180C and line a greased 20cm square cake tin with baking paper.
  2. Place the fruit, walnuts, spice, bi-carb, sugar, butter and water in a largish saucepan. Mix it all together with a wooden spoon and bring it to a boil. Let it boil for about two minutes. This is where you stand over the pot, inhale and remember.
  3. Lest the mixture cool for around 15 minutes, longer if you’re patient [which I am not].
  4. Add the eggs and fold in the sifted flours.
  5. Scrape the cake mixture into the prepared tin with your wooden spoon, leaving just enough to lick clean in whatever way you choose. Go on … no one’s looking!
  6. Bake for an hour. For confidence, the old skewer test is a good one. Insert it into the centre of the cake and it should come out clean.
  7. Let the cake cool in the tin before removing it to a cutting board. With a decent knife, slice off as many generous segments as you need. As you do, you can admire your fruit-laden masterpiece in all its moist glory. The remainder will store well in an airtight container for a couple of weeks.

Now, make yourself and your beloved a cup of tea (milk, no sugar), place several pieces of cake on a lovely plate, sit by the fire or in spot where you can see the garden, and breathe deeply.

When you’re ready, sip and eat slowly. Life is precious.

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage, 1982.

Nigel Slater, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger. London: Fourth Estate, 2003.

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