Category: Baking

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

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.

Classic Cookie Recipe: Chocolate-Oatmeal No-Bakes

Mary’s fingers were almost in this shot, waiting to grab a cookie as soon as I was done.

These things have started showing up, more than they ever had before. Amanda V. proudly pointed out a batch in June at her high school graduation open house, explaining that it took forever for them to set up in the heat and humidity. I regreted not taking a picture of them then, but for some reason it slipped my mind. Probably an age thing on my part …

This batch of Aunt Mabel’s Chocolate-Oatmeal No-Bakes showed up yesterday at the annual Saeger family reunion up in Millington, Michigan. They were in a plain Ziploc bag, not even on a plate, and these are the few I was able to salvage out of the crumbs for a photo. I have no idea which of my relatives made them. With over a hundred people there and some already having left when the bag appeared, there was no way to find out who had made them.

But they were good. Just about perfect. Just like mom used to make.

Mom made these for me until late last year when it became apparent she was no longer up to such things. As these have always been my all-time favorite cookies, she made sure I had a regular supply of them. They showed up at my apartment in the early 1980s in Columbus during college. After my first marriage got going they still showed up at the house. During my Navy stint boxes of these cookies were sent to avionics school outside Memphis, calibration schools in Norfolk and outside Denver, and to the ship in the Persian Gulf.

In 1992 in the Gulf, one such box arrived at the aircraft carrier’s calibration lab in a Ziploc bag. A hole about an inch in diameter had been bored into the box, into the plastic bag they were in (which may have had a hole in it to begin with), and straight through the cookies. Somewhere in Europe, a mouse had probably died happily from severe sugar shock and chocolate overload.

As I said, Chocolate-Oatmeal No-Bakes still showed up by the dozens right up until late last year. Mary’s fallen in love with them as I have. But unfortunately, I have yet to make a batch of my own. Maybe I’ll make a batch for Christmas? It’s about time I think.

Some people say these cookies look like small piles of poo. Too bad for them. I’ll eat the things anyway even if they won’t.

Aunt Mabel wasn’t actually a relative. (Amanda V’s not technically a relative either, but my kids thought she was an blood-relative cousin until just a few years ago.) Mabel was proof of my dad actually walking to school four miles each direct in the Flint winters. Not dressed well-enough, dad passed out in a snowbank in front of Mabel’s house when he was about 12. He’d have died in the cold if he hadn’t come-to in her and Fred’s living room with his feet in warm water, meeting Fred and Mabel for the first time. After that, he was a regular and almost-daily guest in their home. Mabel the Card Shark came to live with us in her final years in the 1980s, beating mom and dad at Gin Rummy while wearing that green dealer’s visor.

And she kept trying to trip me with that damn cane …

As the name implies, Chocolate-Oatmeal No-Bakes do not require baking. And their set-up time and final consistancy is dependent on atmospheric conditions. But really, if you love someone or have kids who like chocolate, this is a serious go-to recipe for making some happiness.

Aunt Mabel’s Chocolate-Oatmeal No-Bakes

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup milk (2% or better)
3 tablespoons cocoa*
3 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
3 cups quick oats
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut (optional)

Place some wax paper onto a couple cookie sheets. Mix the sugar, butter, milk and cocoa in a 6-quart pot and bring to a full rolling boil. Remove from the heat and drop in the peanut butter. Let stand about 2 minutes. Mix in the oats, vanilla and, if desired, coconut. Drop the mixture onto the wax paper on the cookie sheets by teaspoons or tablespoons (mom used tablespoons for bigger cookies). Let the cookies stand until firm. It’s best to refrigerate them until serving with a big glass of ice-cold milk.

* Mom’s recipe has the note, “I must admit I heap my tablespoons of cocoa”.

Recipe: Grandma Gardner’s White Bread

Grandma Pat Gardner’s handmade breads, at Sunday Dinner on March 8, 2009.

There is nothing like a slice of freshly-made white bread.


My dad would tell the story of coming home from school in the late 1920s/early 1930s (of course, after walking the four miles home uphill in the driving snow) and, each and every day, finding two still-warm, thick slices of  white bread on the table, slathered thick with fresh butter. Grandma Liske’s bread was so classically made with farmhouse methods that it was baked with the wood stove. Grandma also churned her own butter, the cream coming from the cows on the farm.

I’ve written about various breads in the past, including breads from Zingerman’s and recipes from Pepperidge Farms’ founder Margaret Rudkin. But this bread recipe, from Patricia Gardner (who shot the photo of Mary and I on the LPC About page), is one recipe whose results we’re able to enjoy more regularly than any other fresh-made bread I know of.

So, without further ado, here’s Pat’s locally-popular recipe. Make ya’ some!

Grandma Gardner’s White Bread
Makes 2 loaves

6 cups Pillsbury bread flour
2 cups warm (115F) water
2 packages dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil

In a large mixing bowl combine water, salt, sugar and oil. The water needs to be the temperature of bath water. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid. Let sit for a few minutes until it begins to bubble. This is called “proofing”. Add 2 cups bread flour; mix with mixer on low speed until mixed, then on high speed for 3 minutes.

Add enough water to make a kneadable dough. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for 10 minutes by the clock. Do not try to guess this time. This will make a fune textured, high rising bread. Toward the end of the kneading time the dough should become quite elastic.

Place dough in a large greased bowl, turn once to grease top. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm, draft free place to rise until double.

When dough has risen to double, punch down and let rise to double again.

To form loaves divide dough in half. Roll out each half into a rectangle just enough to eliminate bubbles. Roll jelly roll fashion into loaf and place in greased or oiled loaf pans. Oil top of bread and let rise until double again. When the dough has risen 1 inch above the tops of the pans, place in cold oven. Set oven to 325F and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until medium brown. Turn out to a rack, butter tops and let cool. Eat first one when slightly warm. It will be a little hard to cut but is wonderful cut into thick slices and spread with real, unsalted butter.

Rubik’s Cube Cake

We’ve done a simple Rubik’s Cube cake for Aaron’s 19th birthday this evening. All this is, is an 8″ x 8″ 3-layer Devil’s Food chocolate cake, a whipped chocolate frosting, and a bunch of M&M’s. (The other two sides are orange and white.) As Aaron said, “Suh-weet!

Margaret Rudkin’s 1963 Pepperidge Farm Cookbook

I tried using a smaller pic of this cookbook, but it just didn’t give enough detail of the great cover art.

Back on March 27th I posted quite a few photos from a couple long walks Mary and I had taken the day before in the Waterville and Grand Rapids areas of Ohio along US-24 and the Ohio River. Toward the end of that post is an image of the cookbook you see in the above pic. I’d also written:

The cookbook, “The Margaret Rudkin Pepperidge Farm Cookbook”, contains Rudkin’s autobiography, including how she and her husband first founded the baked-goods company in their barn in 1937. Some of her personal bread and cake recipes are included in the book’s 500+ recipes, including pages of discussions and “rules-of-thumb” regarding making the best baked goods. I felt this was quite a find at $5.

One aspect about that day that I didn’t mention was that, with it only having been a bit more than a week since I’d been in the hospital … and that they didn’t transfuse me after I lost those three units of blood … the walking that day was some of the toughest I’d ever experienced. You know how they make you wait 56 days between donations of one pint of blood? I’d lost three, and it was more than a few months before I actually felt as though I was myself again.

So finding the chafing dish and the cookbooks that day made it all the more interesting. It was cold and the walking became more difficult as the day went on, but I had my dear wife at my side, and she let me buy some cool stuff!

I’d thought I’d blogged more about this great book. But no, I hadn’t. So as the holiday season starts, let’s hear how Mrs. Rudkin enjoyed Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when she was about ten years old:

Turkey time at Thanksgiving was a great treat — not because of the turkey, to my mind, but for the stuffing. I was so crazy about the stuffing that after the turkey was stuffed to bursting, an extra portion was wrapped loosely in a square of cheesecloth and tucked into the pan alongside the turkey. The rich turkey fat sizzled round my little bundle, and when the cheesecloth was opened up, there was a crisp golden ball with a soft, spicy, fragrant center, all for me … The Christmas goose was stuffed with a special potato stuffing — creamy mashed potatoes full of chopped onions which had been simmered in butter, dried bread crumbs, two beaten eggs and lots of sage and thyme, salt and pepper and the cooked giblets, chopped very fine … The roasting was done in the hot oven of the coal stove. All of the drafts were opened up and the oven was tested with a piece of white paper; the exact minutes necessary to brown the paper were carefully computed. Who needed an oven thermometer? The roasting was carefully watched, for the goose fat had to be spooned off several times as it cooked off. It mustn’t be allowed to burn, for it was kept to be mixed with camphorated oil and rubbed on chests when we had coughing cold.

Sometime next week I’ll post Mrs. Rudkin’s version of her grandmother’s recipe for the turkey stuffing she describes here. It’s quite simple really, and will possibly give slightly better results than using Pepperidge Farms’ prepackaged version simply because you’ll be using fresher ingredients. She also suggests quite a few variations, so you’ll likely find something you might like.

The rest of the wonderful autobiographical portions of the book are also in this kind of delightful and descriptive narrative. This is a book I seriously enjoy just sitting down and reading. Even the recipes are cool to read. The book as divided into sections related to Mrs. Rudkin’s life, such as growing up in Ireland, starting Pepperidge Farm in New York, and also includes a chapter of recipes and notes from antique and ancient cookbooks in her own collection. From a book published in the year 1475 in Venice comes this interesting recipe for Pumpkin Pie, which was apparently supposed to also have an upper crust:

Shred well-cleaned pumpkins and, as with cheese, let them cook a little either in heavy juice or in milk. When partially cooked, pass it through a sieve into a pan, as, I said first, for cheese.

Mix together a half-pound of sow’s belly or rich fat boiled and beaten with a knife, or in place of these, if you wish, the same amount of butter or liquamen; a half-pound of sugar, a little ginger, some cinnamon, six eggs and two cups of milk with a little saffron.

This dessert will be rich with a good crust only if cooked above or below a slow fire.

There will be those who add pieces of leaves in place of the upper crust and call the dish lagana. When cooked and put in a dish, sprinkle on it sugar and rosewater.

Cassius, who was bothered by colic and stones, did not eat this. It is difficult to digest and nourishes badly.

Of course, her own recipes are simply amazing in that they’re classics from the beginning. To start, here is Mrs. Rudkin’s recipe for a simple loaf of white bread. And don’t forget, I’ll post her stuffing recipe next week. You might just want to bake a fresh loaf of this bread for it …

White Bread
(Makes 1 loaf)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, 20 minutes before loaf is ready to bake.

1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons shortening or butter
1/2 cup warm water
1 ounce package or 1 ounce cake yeast, dry or compressed
3 cups sifted unbleached white flour

Scald the milk.
Add and stir in the sugar, salt and shortening or butter.
Cool to lukewarm.
Measure into a large mixing bowl the warm (not hot) water.
(Cool to lukewarm for compressed yeast.)
Sprinkle or crumble in the yeast.
Stir until dissolved.
Add the lukewarm milk mixture.
Add and stir in 1-1/2 cups sifted flour.
Beat until smooth.
Add and stir in an additional 1-1/2 cups sifted flour (about).
Turn out on a lightly floured board.
Knead quickly and lightly until smooth and elastic.
Place in a greased bowl; brush lightly with melted shortening or butter.
Cover with a clean damp towel.
Let rise in a warm place, about 85 degrees F, free from draft, until doubled in bulk, about 50 minutes.
Punch down.
Shape into a loaf and place in a greased bread pan, 9 by 5 by 3 inches.
Cover with a clean damp towel.
Let rise in a warm place, about 85 degrees F, free from draft, until doubled in bulk, about 50 minutes.
Bake in a hot oven (400 degrees F) for about 50 minutes.