Category: Family Traditions

Recipe: Sharron Lee’s Classic Dark Christmas Fruitcake … with Pork Fat


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Scott Lee is an old friend of mine. Not that he’s actually old … he’s as middle-aged as I am, and slightly older by a few months. But Scott’s been around most of my life. We met in art class in 6th grade, spent time studying magic and illusions for a while, transitioned into those funky tube stereos and big speakers in the late 70s and early 80s, and because of the physical distance between us since have basically hung out off-and-on only whenever possible.

Throughout the 1970s and into the mid 1980s my own mom would make hundreds of decorated sugar cookies at Christmas and spread them throughout the neighborhood, including sending batches over to the Lees’ house. Scott’s mom Sharron had a similar but slightly different tradition. Sharron would spend the time to make dozens of fruitcakes and send them off to family and neighbors, including us. And I mean … dozens … of fruitcakes. Scott and I discussed this this weekend and we estimate she’d make an average of 50 of those fruitcakes each year, with each one being intended for a different family.

One rather interesting aspect of these particular fruitcakes from Sharron was their texture. They were never what is considered to be your normal fruitcake. There was never the thought the following year of, “Joyce, we’ll just put another coat of varnish on the cotton-pickin’ thing and give it to someone else!” Sharron’s fruitcakes were actually good. People tended to indeed eat them.

When Mary and I got together six years ago she found it odd that there were fruitcakes out there I considered not only edible but good-tasting as well. Sharron’s fruitcakes were where that knowledge had originated, spreading to some (very few) commercial fruitcakes over the decades.

Having always been enamored by these fruitcakes, a couple years back I asked Scott if he had any idea where that recipe was. Sharron had previously passed away and I imagined one of Scott’s sisters or his brother may have ended up with it. But oddly enough, Scott told me that even though he doesn’t cook whatsoever (never has, never will) he had been given all his mom’s recipes. Digging through them he actually found it.

In March of 2009 he scanned the typed page of notebook paper and attached it to an email.

I took one look at that second line and about died laughing.

It’s absolutely true. Everything is better with pork fat.

Including fruitcake.

Since receiving the recipe itself from Scott almost two years ago, I’d been wanting to go ahead and recreate what Sharron did to some degree. As it says at the bottom of the page, “Note: The above receipe will fill 5  1 qt. Loaf Pans”. Sharron would obviously make an average of 10 batches each year, starting probably just after Thanksgiving and continuing for the next few weeks. I knew I didn’t want to do this much. Five loaves seemed fine.

But I always found some reason to put it off.

However, in the past couple weeks this bug has bit hard and I felt I needed to do this before Christmas of this year. So yesterday with Adam and Ryan in tow, I bit the bullet and went shopping.

We happened to be in Lenawee County in southeast Michigan so we went to one of our favorite groceries there, the Country Market on Maumee Street on the west side of Adrian.

The first thing we noticed was how expensive good fruitcake is to make. The two 8 oz containers of the green and red candied cherries were $5 each. The 1 lb container of mixed fruits and peels was also $5. The nut meats, depending on what we decided to use, was anywhere from $5 for walnuts to $10 for pecans per pound for the fresh ones.

The reality is that, even if you don’t get everything absolutely fresh, these five fruitcakes are going to run about $6 each, which is what we spent: about $30 total. In the 1960s and 1970s when Sharron was making these fruitcakes full-bore, I imagine the total per five fruitcakes was still 10 – $15. I never realized how much she had spent on this annual project.

The cheapest item was the pork fat.

There was no pork fat in the meat case like there normally is at Country Market, over by the fresh pigs’ feet and pork livers. One of the butchers went into the meat cutting room and retrieved this fat for us from a number of cuts. The label he put on it had it at 31 cents/lb.

When shopping for the ingredients we had to figure a few things out. The “nut meats” we assumed to be walnuts, but looking at commercial fruitcakes in the store we found references to walnuts, pecans and almonds. While the walnuts were less expensive, pecans have a much better flavor so that’s what we picked. Almonds just didn’t seem right at all.

“Green Label Molasses” seemed rather odd but also kinda familiar. Looking in the area of the syrups we found the Grandma’s Molasses brand has a product with a green label, which is their hardier and less-sweet “robust” variety. This sounded appropriate for Sharron’s fruitcakes so that’s what we got.

And while we could have gotten fresh dates and chopped them, we went ahead, wimped out, and bought the Sun-Maid pouches.

For the flour, when we were in the DC area over Labor Day weekend I ended up with a reason to go to Trader Joe’s to pick up a bag of their unbleached all-purpose flour. As this bag was still in the freezer we decided the fruitcakes would be a good use for five cups of it.

Back to the pork fat: When discussing this recipe with butchers at Country Market and our friends at Kilgus Meats they’ve mentioned it would probably be alright to use suet or even lard in place of the ground pork fat. But I wanted to remain as true as possible to what Sharron did so I insisted on using pork fat. One issue I ran into though was that, once we started making the fruitcakes, I found the one pound of pork fat didn’t go through Mary’s mom’s hand-crank #10 meat grinder all that well. It took probably 30 minutes of cranking forward, cranking back, then forward, then back, over and over and over again, until all of it was either ground or, as it turned out, slowly puréed. Next year I’m most certainly asking the butcher to grind it …

Once the pork fat was ground and the oven was set to preheat at 325 degrees F the rest of the recipe flew by rather well. Adam and I were concerned the pork fat wasn’t melting correctly when we poured the boiling water over the fat, molasses and brown sugar. The pork fat broke up faster with a whisk but I made the mistake of touching the bottom of the bowl with the whisk and ended up with a lot of molasses/pork stringiness in the end of the wires.

One major issue is that the mixture becomes considerably thicker the more it’s stirred. Once the flour is added the density begins to build almost exponentially. This continues as the candies and nuts are added and more and more ingredients are folded in. I ended up reaching for a stronger and larger mixing spoon. It became obvious to us the recipe needs to be re-worked in an effort to point this issue out and to end up with a lighter and less-dense fruitcake after baking. Mixing the fruits and nuts separately and then gently folding them into the mixture would probably help.

Another interesting discovery is that, once the fruitcakes are removed from the oven, unless they’re refrigerated (and largely because of their density) they are quite hot for a couple hours and continue to cook. Testing these fruitcakes for “doneness” with a toothpick or butter knife is completely pointless. Just take them out after an hour, put them on the cooling racks and leave them alone till they’re cool.

Finally, these quart-size foil pans are great for these fruitcakes. I just gave each one a couple flexes and the fruitcake would drop right into my hand. Perfect.

I have to commend Sharron Lee for her tenacity in making so many batches of these fruitcakes over the years. I’m not sure when she started but I remember starting to receive them early in the 1970s. Scott estimates his mom stopped making these in the mid 1980s when his youngest sister finished high school and went off to college. The fruitcakes were quite a beautiful, time-consuming and yes, expensive, thing for her to do for the people who received them, the people she really cared about. Hers are the kinds of real Christmas traditions that last as memories forever.

Sharron Lee’s Classic Dark Christmas Fruitcake
Makes five 8″ x 3-3/4″ (one-quart) loaves

Ingredients
1 lb pork fat, ground (no lean meat in it whatsoever)
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup molasses, preferably Grandma’s brand Robust variety
2 cups boiling water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
5 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt
1 cup chopped pecans, walnuts, almonds or a combination
1 lb mixed fruits and peels
1 lb chopped dates
1/2 lb candied red cherries
1/2 lb candied green cherries

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F. Put the ground pork fat, dark brown sugar and molasses in a large mixing bowl. Slowly pour the boiling water over the other ingredients and stir until most of the pork fat is dissolved. It’s best to start with a spoon, then continue with a whisk, ensuring not to touch the whisk to the bottom of the bowl.

In another bowl sift the dry ingredients and spices together and ensure they are well incorpated. Gently mix them into the wet mixture until everything is just blended. Don’t mix it too much or it will become thicker and more dense.

In yet another bowl mix the nuts and fruit together without breaking them. Fold them gently into the batter.

Spoon the batter into five 8″ x 3-3/4″ (one-quart) loaf pans, making sure to only fill the pans halfway. Bake them in a 325 degree F oven for one hour but no longer. After one hour of baking remove them to cooling racks, where they will continue to cook inside as they cool for a long period of more than an hour.

Note: To make these into rum-soaked fruitcakes cut a piece each of parchment and cheesecloth for each fruitcake. Moisten each cheesecloth with a tablespoon of dark rum and lay the cloth on its parchment. Remove the fruitcakes from their pans onto each cheesecloth and sprinkle each with another tablespoon or two of the dark rum. Wrap the cheesecloths tightly around the fruitcakes then wrap the parchments around them as well. Place them into an airtight container or even a large resealable plastic bag and allow them to age for ten weeks.

My Father’s Day 2010 Dinner: Kid-Made Stuffed Burgers & Fruit Salad

My kids have been busting their butts all day long. The day started with a knock at the bedroom door. On the other side was 13-year-old Ryan. In each of his hands was a large mug of Biggby Michigan Cherry coffee, a mug each for Mary and I. He’d brewed it himself and to tell you the truth it was pretty darn smooth.

Later in the morning Ryan made me breakfast, one of his top-notch Poached Egg Sandwich on Toast dishes. He decided a few years ago, probably at age 10, that he likes poached eggs more than any other cooking type. He started by nuking them in the microwave but now occasionally poaches them on the stovetop as well. He’s also mowed the loan and helped his sister with some things today.

15-year-old Briahna is normally quite the princess. We’ll hear, “I can’t do dishes I just had my nails done!” But even after spending three days at the hospital with Mary and I during the latter part of this week while I dealt with another episode of The Nosebleed From Hell, Bri has washed the walls and doors upstairs and down the carpeted stairs, vacuumed the carpeting, steam-cleaned it, and power-washed the back deck. We’ve now replaced her phone, which she’d lost at either the hospital or the hotel she and Mary stayed at.

17-year-old Adam just plain kicks ass. He’s done all our shopping this weekend (multiple trips), done most of the work installing a 2.1 GPM pump on the city’s flower pot watering tank in the back of our van, taken my convalescing self on a short walk on the long pier (thank God not the other way round) and anything else we’ve needed.

For Father’s Day dinner this evening Adam put together and grilled these beautiful stuffed burgers, which were stuffed with cheddar, sweet onion and bacon. Briahna also created the fruit salad of watermelon, strawberries, pineapple, kiwi, blueberries and blackberries. The meal was superb, and I’m very proud of my kids for all they do for us just out of love.

We don’t see my 20-year-old Aaron too much unless he’s not working. He works long hours in the refrigerator that is the produce area of the Meijer warehouse just north of Monroe, Michigan. Meijer is a Michigan-based department store that originated the concept of mixing a department store and full grocery. They do it so well the chain has 180 stores in the midwest. Mary’s oldest, Caleb, works at the same warehouse but in the frozen foods section, wearing many layers during work even in the summer months. And her youngest, John, is that most-excellent Marine of ours, stationed at Quantico. These three young men are sorely missed on days like today, and I always wish the best for them.

Gifts from these same kids are right up my alley: Assorted truffles, milk chocolate, dark chocolate with infused chili extract, and some new book from some guy with goofy lips who supposedly knows something about food. Ok, so that is the one thing I actually requested … it completes my Bourdain collection. Mary bought me two books, “Why a Daughter Needs a Dad” and “Why a Son Needs a Dad”, and of course Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” on Blue-Ray. What could be better?

I have great, wonderful, amazing kids and I love all of them very much. I hope they know that. It’s important. Happy Father’s Day? Yes, I had one, thanks to these kids!

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there.

Father’s Day, A Tribute to Dad

Many of you know my dad passed away late December in 2008 at the tender age of 85. I’ve written before of his signature dish, Eggs In A Frame, and of his despising melted cheese in any form even though I have a photo of him eating pizza. But while I’ve posted a lot more about mom regarding her cooking techniques and recipes, I really haven’t spent a whole lot of time discussing dad’s cooking techniques. And the Eggs In A Frame dish is really his only recipe that I’m aware of.

That’s because dad really didn’t cook much that I can recall. Why?

Because when it came to cooking or even doing dishes, that was mom’s job.

Dad was a classic child of the farming communities of the 1920s and 30s. The menfolk, if you will, headed out into the fields or the livestock barns and worked their butts off. Meanwhile, momma and the girls would be inside taking care of the cooking and cleaning. That’s just how it was. Dad told us he would look forward to coming home to find a couple slices of thick, buttered and still-warm bread on a plate in the kitchen as an after-school snack. Of course, that was after the 4-mile walk from school so he was pretty tired, ya’ know?

Early in my own life I do recall he had his outdoor cooker. However, it wasn’t much. No matter what time-period I think back to, there was that Hibachi. He always had the little cast iron version, set on top of a 2′ square concrete block set on its side on the patio. He would use both wood and charcoal to fire it, along with paper and lighter fluid. Dinner then was hot dogs and burgers, with the burgers being rather thin and kinda dry. Still he tried so it was good. He might also put a can of baked beans on the grates to heat as a side dish.

One time, when he was finished and was getting ready to clean that Hibachi, he set the grates on the patio tile to dump the coals … and promptly put all of his weight on the still-hot grate. He had to peel that grate off his foot before going to see the doctor. I believe he probably still had that scar when he passed away.

For most of the time they lived in that house from the late 1950s onward, dad had a rather active garden. I remember being directed to go out there to weed, or pick beans, or help plant the corn. There was always the corn and beans, along with onions, carrots, cucumbers and peas. Dad also dabbled in potatoes and peanuts. One gentleman from the GM plant dad worked at wanted to plant some lima beans but no one would let him use their garden space as he was black. So he ended up planting at our house, to which I owe my love for those limas. But I do hate gardening.

Dad wasn’t a hunter (I haven’t hunted a single day in my life) but he fancied himself a pretty good fisherman. He had a lot of old fishing poles, a couple casting reels, a fly-fishing reel or two, and even a couple bamboo poles we could tie lines to. We’d go to one of the “fish farm” ponds up on old US-23, but mostly we went to what was then Wildwood Park, a Michigan State Park south of Flint. We’d rent a canoe and head out for perch, trout, bass … whatever we could find. We’d get it home and mom would either cook it up, or wrap it in foil for the freezer only to throw it away a couple years later after it ended up with some bad freezer burn.

In the mid 1970s Dr Walker diagnosed dad to be hypoglycemic. Dad mis-interpreted the diet page to mean he was supposed to eat six times each day, including a half head of lettuce. This made for dad occasionally eating way more than he could handle, and ending up being miserable by the end of the day. None of us had the heart to sit down with him and explain it correctly.

When it came to restaurants dad had a tendency to seek out some seriously good family places. We had a tradition on Friday evenings of heading out for dinner at a restaurant and then we’d go to the grocery store for the week’s shopping. (Dad always disappeared to the meat department and spend the whole time shopping finding six packages of meat.) On occasion we’d go to a Flint coney place or Haloburger for a deluxe cheeseburger. But dad’s penchant for finding good family diners was unmatched. As it turned out, dad was finding Greek-owned places that had become all the rage for what was “real food”.

Dad would have a real issue later on when prices started climbing above $3.50 per entrée. He felt no meal was worth more than that, and that particular price-point, along with the demise of Hamady Bros. grocery in the Flint area, marked the beginning of the end of our Friday night family tradition.

While I was in college I asked dad when he was coming to Columbus to visit. He said he’d have to ask mom, to which I said I wasn’t asking about her. After a pause dad mumbled, “I’ve never been anywhere without your mother.” He came down to Columbus by himself for a four-day weekend during which he enjoyed a Bahama Mama at Schmidt Sausage House, and some good ribs. Later during my own US-based travels with the Navy I got dad to eat some more “exotic” foods outside of his Veal Parmesan comfort zone, such as crab legs, and steak that wasn’t always cooked to be well done. In the years after my divorce he’d eat chilled taco salad, my oven-roasted potato salad, Tex-Mex breakfast burritos, and even some good Hungarian food.

In the last few years before his death the old softie, who fought the savage “Japs” in WW II, acquired a taste for both Japanese and Americanized Chinese foods, happily visiting the Chinese buffet in his hometown many times.

Helping him eat a couple last meals in the nursing home, I got to thinking about what I was feeding him. Obviously it cost a bit more that $3.50 for the whole meal from the nursing home kitchen. I doubt he would have liked that at all.

Happy Father’s Day, dad, I miss you, my friend.

Recipe: Phillips/Chesapeake Bay-style Crab Cakes


The finished crab cake sandwiches. Zack and Chris ate these two.

I hadn’t really planned on making crab cakes for Memorial Day. But I’d been looking for these cans of Phillips crab meat for some time and when I found them to be available at Meijer in Toledo last week for $10/can, I went ahead and bought these two cans. Phillips Foods in Baltimore, Maryland, has been processing crab since 1914 and has operated Phillips Seafood Restaurants since 1956. Phillips crab meat and other products are used in better restaurants across the country and is some of the best available.

While an enlisted individual in the US Navy I spent over six years living near the Chesapeake Bay. My oldest son was born at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, while Adam and Briahna were born in Chesapeake and Norfolk, Virginia, respectively. Of the many things I remember about living in that area, enjoying the fresh seafood is something I miss the most.

One of the more fun activities out there is a Crab Bake. Co-workers would buy bushels of steamed Chesapeake Bay crabs seasoned with Old Bay, the trademark seasoning of the area. We would spread newspapers out on tables and just dig into the crabs, enjoying every last morsel and finishing more bushels than I can recall. It was always the kind of “picnic” I could get into.

The crab meat in these cans is Indonesian wild-caught claw meat instead of the leg meat most people are used to. More brown in color than leg meat, claw meat also has a stronger flavor. This allows it to stand up better to seasonings and other flavors in the mix. It’s really ideal for something like a crab cake.

For these particular crab cakes the recipe on the back of the can calls for Phillips Seafood Seasoning. Unfortunately for this recipe, Phillips Seafood Seasoning is largely unavailable in the midwest. This I replaced with the venerable Old Bay. I also doubled the amount of dry mustard in the recipe. Why? I like mustard, that’s all.

I also made sure to use real mayonnaise, real unsalted butter and ground mustard instead of dry mustard. To me, these just add to the overall flavors.


Chris and Zack in the rain this evening doing a live piece on water safety at the Luna Pier beach.

While the resulting crab cakes each only use 1/4 lb of crab meat, each of us, 13abc reporter Zack Ottenstein and videographer Chris Henderson, along with myself, could only eat one sandwich each. The flavor of the crab cake is extremely good and the inside meat is nice and tender. But they’re very filling, we were simply full and none of us could eat a second sandwich right away.

I may be able to eat one now …


About to fold the crab meat into the rest of the mix.

Phillips Crab Cakes
(from the back of the can and modified)
serves 4

Ingredients
1 egg
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp dry mustard
2 Tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp prepared yellow mustard
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp parsley flakes
1 tsp Old Bay seafood seasoning
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
1 lb crab meat

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees F or set a skillet on the stovetop. Combine everything but the crab meat. Fold in the crab meat, then form into cakes. Either bake the cakes in the oven or pan-fry them in the skillet in a little melted butter. Serve on good buns with mayonnaise, lettuce and sliced tomato.

A Simple Roast Beef Dinner: Happy Anniversary Mom & Dad

57 years ago today my parents were married in Flint, Michigan. For as long as I could remember, my mom made a simple yet traditional roast beef dinner in one of those navy blue oval roasting pans about once each month. But she did it the old way. She’d place the roast in the middle of the pan, then add water till the roast was covered. She’d then add cut onions, carrots and potatoes around the roast, then place the cover and “roast” it at 350 – 375 degrees F until the roast beef fell apart.

Yup. She basically boiled it. I loved my mom (and dad) very much. But the boiled roast beef tasted better when I slathered it with French’s yellow mustard before eating.

Mom and dad both passed on last year before their 56th anniversary. I’d made a proper slow-roasted beef roast for them a couple times and they couldn’t believe how flavorful it was. It doesn’t take much: Just roast it slow, and keep it out of the juice. Oh, and make sure to forget about the water. Sorry mom …

A simple yet traditional roast beef dinner can be an amazing thing. Meijer had some beef roasts on-sale yesterday that were about 2 inches thick so I went ahead and snagged one, along with some kohlrabi and baking potatoes.

Here’s how I do it: For a 5:30 pm dinner I started at 11 am, preheating the oven to 200 degrees F. I then sliced six stalks celery and six nice-sized carrots. I cut onions and kohlrabi in half, then quartering the halves. Dumping all this into the oval roasting pan made for a layer of vegetables about 1.5 inches deep. I then seasoned both sides of the roast with plenty of Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper and laid it on top of the veggies.

Why lay the roast on top of the veggies? My roaster doesn’t have a rack, and the veggies work well in physically supporting the meat. The veggies then slow-cook in the juices from the roast, while still having a nice “bite” hours later. I learned this from that Guy Fieri dude, and it works really well.

I put the cover on the roasting pan and placed it in the oven by 11:30 am. I then wrapped the baking potatoes in aluminum foil, punctured them a few times deeply with a fork, and placed them next to the pan on the oven rack so they would also slow-cook for six hours.

The roast simply slow-cooks and is fall-apart good, with a nice rich flavor. The veggies still have a good “bite”, especially the kohlrabi. And the potatoes don’t get overdone at all.

Even if your parents are gone, make sure to continue their traditions, especially those having to do with food. Your parents raised you on certain foods and meals, and those meals are part of who you are. As in the Navy, when it comes to even the simplest family traditions, always “Carry on”.

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