Category: Holidays

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


Click on any image for a larger version.

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.

Updated Recipe: Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding

Recently it seems the standard Green Bean Casserole is falling out of favor with a lot of families for holiday meals. There have been considerably more hits on this particular recipe in these latter months of 2010 than in years past, along with more hits on a similar post on a commercial sweet corn bake I once reviewed. The story remains the same, but I’ve updated the ingredients to reflect more recently-available products. We enjoyed this dish for Thanksgiving dinner today and will continue to do so in the future. I hope you enjoy its wonderful simplicity as much as we do.

One of my favorite recipes of all time is that of Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding, which comes from Mary Juett Pochodzay. Mary Juett and her family have lived east of the Kentucky Derby since before I met them over 20 years ago. She and her husband worked in the same school system for many years. Mary Juett was head of the cafeteria system there, and was so well-respected within Kentucky’s cafeteria community she ended up elected President of the statewide Kentucky School Food Service Association.

There was a day in 1996 when I ate lunch in the school cafeteria that was under Mary Juett’s supervision. There were big, thick slices of baked ham with pineapple, a pile of black beans, warm and tender apple crisp … Real food prepared well. I’d never had a school lunch like that one the whole time I was in school.

Mary Juett learned early-on how much I liked her version of Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding, and had finally given me the recipe. I made it quite a few times over the passing years.

So here it is, one of my long-time faves. I hope you like it as much as I have over many servings.

Click on the above image for a larger version.

Kentucky Sweet Corn Pudding
Mary Juett Pochodzay
Serves 6 – 8

2 large eggs
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
Dash salt
1 14-3/4 oz can whole kernel corn, drained
1 14-3/4 oz can creamed corn
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F. In a medium mixing bowl beat the eggs, then add the flour, sugar and salt, mixing well. Fold in the corn and melted butter. Pour the mixture into an 8″ x 8 glass” casserole dish or tall 8″ ramekin. Without stirring further, bake at 400 degrees F for 30 – 40 minutes until the top is browned. Remove the finished pudding from the oven and allow it to set for a few minutes before serving.

Notes:

  1. Add a few small (1/4″ square) blocks of butter to the top of the pudding before baking to improve browning if desired.
  2. The whole kernel corn can certainly be replaced with newer products containing chopped bell peppers and other additions.
  3. Other additions can also be made such as chopped or sliced jalapeno, chopped green onion, or even chunks of cooked bacon or ham. Use your imagination!

Mother’s Day 2010: Kielbasa and Pierogi for Mary

One of our “standard” meals in the six years Mary and I have been together has been a fairly traditional meal of Polish Kielbasa and Pierogi. We served this meal at our small wedding in late 2004, our wedding reception in mid-2005, to the administration of the Village of Carleton, Michigan, during Luna Pier’s portion of the 2008 Mayoral exchange, and countless other meals around those.

Today, for Mary’s dinner for Mother’s Day 2010, I think I finally got it right.

Sautéeing the pierogi and onions is the simple part. I use Michigan-made pierogi from Polish Harvest, an old-style manufacturer in Hamtramck, Michigan (yes, where Paczki were brought into the U.S.) I sautée the pierogi in real, unsalted butter over medium-high heat and pay really close attention to which pierogi are done and which aren’t. As they’re done (not all at once) they go into a glass casserole in a 225-degree F oven for holding.

The Kielbasa has always been the rough part. Traditionally the sausage is braised in a German-style beer in a high-wall skillet on the stove. For larger groups, we’ve gone with slow-cooking in old-style roasters at about 225 degrees F, with plenty of beer included in the sausage. But to me, there was something else that might have been done to make it just a little more traditional for today’s “Americanized” tastes.

This morning, on a whim, I picked up a 6-pack of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. The Polish Kielbasa for this batch was handmade by our friends at Kilgus Choice Meats in Toledo, Ohio. Before noon I dumped a couple bottles of the lager in with the three pounds of Kielbasa and set it in the fridge. After draining it this evening, I simply grilled it over medium heat.

That’s really all it needs. With the casing nice and crisp, the tender meat of the sausage really let the lager come through in a good balance with the flavor of the pork. The pierogi were also crisp on the outside and, as they were potato and cheddar, were tender on the inside and worked well with the sautéed onions.

Will I cook this meal this way again? Absolutely.

A Flight Deck Picnic on the USS America, and The 2010 Grilling Season Begins


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It’s now the beginning of the 2010 grilling season here in the midwest and I’ve finally been able to grill a couple times without having to wear a parka. Any time I start worrying about how many people I’m cooking for at any given meal, I think back to the day these pics were taken. I wasn’t a cook on the aircraft carrier USS America (I was just a technician in one of the electronics repair labs on the ship) but I saw how hard the cooks worked in feeding a crew of over 5,000 men four meals each day. (As ships operate 24 hours/day, 7 days/week, with two shifts, there’s a fourth meal around 1 a.m. for the night shift.) I took these pics almost exactly 18 years ago on May 22, 1992. We were making the passage from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and the Captain had designated that day “Ditch Day”, a common name for such events. There was BBQ chicken, burgers, baked beans, corn, cole slaw, tossed salad, potato salad, dill pickles, and plenty of canned Coca-Cola for everyone. The day was rather hot, so there were massive water balloon fights and a few somewhat “leaky” firefighting hoses strewn about the deck. Note the band to the left of the first picture. How the drummer managed to get his kit onboard a combat vessel is beyond me.

Before anyone asks, the ship is no longer afloat:

In $22 million worth of “experiments that will last from four to six weeks,” the AP reports, “the Navy will batter the America with explosives, both underwater and above the surface, watching from afar and through monitoring devices placed on the vessel.” … These explosions would presumably simulate attacks by torpedoes, cruise missiles and perhaps a small boat suicide attack like the one that damaged the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 … At the end, explosive scuttling charges placed to flood the ship will be detonated, and the America will begin its descent to the sea floor …

According to Wikipedia, the scuttling location on May 14, 2005, was 33°09′09″N, 71°39′07″W, around 250 miles (400 km) southeast of Cape Hatteras. The wreck lies in 2,810 fathoms (5139 metres or 16,860 feet).

So how many are you grilling for this weekend? Navy ships around the world may very well be conducting such a picnic as the one in these photos, with thousands in attendance on a small metal “island”. We can only hope the sailors on those vessels can have as peaceful a picnic as we did that day.

For the rest of us, outdoor cooking has come a long way from the green, boxy, stamped metal cookstoves that were seemingly obiquitous from the 1940s through the 1980s. Those particular cookstoves are still available today and are still popular in a lot of circles. But with today’s cooks watching more cooking shows on television and having more experience with professional-grade equipment, equipment design has taken huge strides towards providing the same grade of equipment in considerably lower-cost packages.

In the summer of 2008 whan I ran the beachhouse concession here in Luna Pier, Michigan, next to the public Lake Erie beach I offered just a bit of breakfast for a while. I tried frozen sandwiches and breakfast burritos, muffins and danishes, and even simple donuts, but didn’t sell enough of any of them to satisfy being open for those hours. I finally shut down breakfast and instead opened the shop at 11 a.m for lunch. If I’d have had the Blackstone Four-Burner Griddle pictured above, I could have made customers complete, fresh breakfast including eggs, diner-style omelets, hash browns, etc. We could have also grilled the hot dogs for our Flint-Style Coneys like they do on the west coast instead of steaming them. All of that would have been a lot better.

If you were able to stop at our house for the City-Wide Yard Sale in 2006 or 2007 you’ll know that I enjoy deep-frying handmade corndogs in my King Kooker 18″ Rectangular Cooker. The company also makes the above Triple-Burner Outdoor Camp Stove. I can see this being used for soups, chili, cast iron skillets for breakfast in the morning … all without taking up space on the picnic table and risking burning someone on the arm. This thing would be quite versatile in any camp I’ve been part of.

As to deep-frying, I’ve seen these beasties in stores and I’ll tall you what, I’m impressed! R&V Works manufactures these deep fryers in single, double or triple configurations. Carts are avaible to double some of these up, making quad and sextuplet fryers, like the one shown above. The folks running the Lenten Fish Dinner at the American Legion Post here in Luna Pier could have used one of the six-basket units, with two baskets each for the Alaskan cod, the breaded shrimp, and the hand-cut French fries. They use three electric deep fryers for all of this, which together end up costing about twice as much as the R&V Works cart unit. And since the cart unit uses standard LP gas, its operation costs are a little bit less over the long run.

Going camping this summer? Are you involved at all with the cooking for a local Scouting troop or campground? Is there some special event you’d like to cook for? Or do you want to get a serious start on some great tailgating equipment? All of this gear, and plenty more like it, are out there in outdoor supply shops and on the internet for ordering. Get to it!

Thanksgiving Dinner 2009 at the Occoquan Inn, Occoquan, VA


A slice of the fresh Blue Ribbon Pumpkin Pie, with whipped cream. Dessert first, right? Other available desserts were an Apple Cinnamon Cobbler and a Chocolate Coffee Mousse.

We’d been planning this trip for a while: Spending Thanksgiving with Mary’s youngest son, LCpl John Winckowski, USMC, just north of where he’s stationed at Quantico, south of Washington, DC. It fell to me to find a place for Thanksgiving dinner so I headed to Serious Eats out of New York City to ask the question:

We’ll be in the Potomac Mills area for Thanksgiving. Does anyone have any suggestions for a decent (i.e., comfortable, pleasant, not fast food) restaurant for 6 or so for dinner? Doesn’t quite matter if it’s a “traditional” Thanksgiving Day meal, although that would be preferred.

The first answer, from user Womandingo, included the following:

Alas, the Woodbridge area is not known for its culinary diversity. You might want to come a few miles north on I-95 to Occoquan, a really pretty place right on the river where there are some lovely little locally-owned restaurants … One really nice place in Occoquan is The Garden Kitchen – http://www.gardenkitchen.com/home – I don’t know if they’re doing a Thanksgiving dinner, but I would be surprised if they weren’t … Check out the Occoquan Inn, another pretty place, that IS serving Thanksgiving dinner and taking reservations now – http://www.occoquaninn.com/occinn.php … I wish I could give you better information about the area around Potomac Mills, but, alas, it’s just not designed for gourmands – or even people who want to eat better than fast food … Good luck.

Womandingo is quite correct about the lack of diversity around the Potomac Mills Shopping Center itself. The area is loaded with chains, ranging from White Castle to 5 Guys, Denny’s to Chili’s and Applebee’s and just about everything else. It’s just not well-suited for anything close to a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner, especially a dinner to share with someone who’s had mostly Mess Hall food for months at a time.

After a couple false starts I finally nailed down a noon reservation for us for Thanksgiving dinner at the Occoquan Inn in Occoquan, Virginia, for their limited menu from noon to 4 p.m., the only time the Inn would be open on Thanksgiving Day. Womandingo’s other suggestion, The Garden Inn, a block away from the Occoquan Inn, was closed for Thanksgiving.

A brass historical marker on the front of the Occoquan Inn indicates the older construction is circa 1780, although the framed copy of the ghost story next to the marker places construction in 1810. The building, the village itself, the river that runs through the valley behind the Inn … this is all authentic older America. Occoquan’s city hall is a converted one-room schoolhouse, one which is quite similar to the circa 1861 schoolhouse Briahna lives in.

We arrived at the restaurant shortly before noon and, as other guests headed behind the Inn to the river, we were the first ones seated. It turned out our reservation was for the table near the center of the front window, making for a beautiful view of the village. By 12:10, the Inn was packed with guests.


Mary, John and Briahna after being seated.

For the rest of this post, I’ll let the photos basically speak for themselves. This was a beautiful meal. If you have a chance to enjoy eating at the Occoquan Inn as we did, make sure you do. Thanks Womandingo!


While you may not think of shrimp as an appetizer for Thanksgiving, Mary’s family does follow this tradition. These were plump and flavorful shrimp, with a wonderful dipping sauce.


Marinated mushroom caps, with whipped cream cheese with bacon and balsamic. The filling was incredibly light and airy with a rich flavor.


Baby spinach salad with hot bacon dressing and boiled egg. The spinach couldn’t have been fresher or crispier. A Ceasar salad was also available, as were a Virginia Clam Chowder and a Blue Crab Bisque. Briahna and I had the chowder and while it’s almost impossible to get a good photo of, it was positively stunning.


The Traditional Tom Turkey Dinner with roasted turkey, stock gravy, baked ham (which wasn’t listed on the menu), country-style stuffing, sweet potatoes, whipped potatoes, crisp fresh vegetables and housemade cranberry sauce. This plate was huge, piled high, and quite simply, too much wonderful food to finish with desserts in-sight! Other available entrees were Roast Prime Rib of Beef with horseradish sauce, Baked Rockfish Supreme in an herb marinade with shrimp and wild rice, and Chicken Imperial stuffed with blue crab and a lemon Hollandaise sauce.

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