I have always loved taking pictures of food: food I happen to eat when I am abroad, food I make, food I am only looking at from the other side of a Parisian patisserie’s shop window. This has always involved sharing them with my friends, too. Not in a sadomasochistic attempt to make them jealous about what I was having, and they could not, but rather in a perhaps somewhat bizarre way of showing affection: you’re not here, and I would share it with you if I could. One of my friends remarked how there is always something lacking in pictures of food, which makes them even more unsatisfying, and that is, of course, smell.
This is a most undeniable statement, yet I think pictures of food, and indeed literature even more so perhaps, can be evocative of smell, and this brief conversation with my friend made me think of when my fascination with food in literature started – not with a visual prompt, as one would perhaps imagine, seen my obsession with pictures of food, but rather with an olfactory one. Years ago, I bought a copy of Truman Capote’s A Breakfast at Tiffany’s which happened to contain some of his short stories too: the one which I found most striking, and indeed most touching, was one called ‘A Christmas Memory’ (1956). Coming from the romantic glitter of Holly Golightly’s New York, I was dumbfounded to find myself in the 1930s Alabama of Capote’s childhood: hard times, poor atmospheres, and a general strive for love.
Older Capote remembers his cousin Sook’s tradition of making fruitcakes in November (‘fruitcake weather’), to be posted to different parts of the United States, mostly to people she did not know, but admired, or that she had barely met, but had been nice to her. With one of them being President Roosevelt, the general effect of the story is rather comical, and yet somewhat heart breaking: ‘Buddy, do you think Mrs Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?’ (Capote 154), Sook asks little Truman (in the short story, “Buddy”), and God only knows what the right answer could be — living in a time now where unexpected items to the President of the United States would not be seen exactly as welcome, it is difficult to think that Mrs Roosevelt would have effectively served the Capotes’ fruitcake at her dinner table. The description of Sook and Buddy making fruitcakes together is one which has remained vivid in my memory, throughout the years:
‘The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odours saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whisky, bask on window sills and shelves.’ (Capote p. 147-8)
The passage in itself is rather simple, if you like, and yet I have hardly read any other text which is more a hymn to baking, and especially the joy of doing that with a loved one: no matter how many times I read it, I cannot help feeling the nearly imperceptible smell of butter softening with sugar, under the eggbeaters’ power, then overtaken by the depths of vanilla and ginger scents, penetrating every single atom of that air, and of course, the tingling smells of roasted nuts and candied fruits — saturating the room, and then reaching other noses, other rooms, other houses, through Capote’s chimney, and Capote’s words.
Fruitcake (American recipe)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup butter
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 cups sugar (I used 1 cup light brown sugar and 1 cup white sugar)
1 cup canned pineapple, diced (and some more for decoration)
½ cup candied lemon zest (+ for decoration)
½ cup candied orange zest (+ for decoration)
½ cup candied ginger
½ cup candied cherries
½ cup raisins
1 cup walnuts
1 cup pecan nuts (+ for decoration)
1 small glass whisky
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons mixed spices (I used ground ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg)
1 teaspoons salt
A couple tablespoons of apricot jam
A splash of water
Nuts, candied fruits, canned pineapple
- Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and mixed spices in one large bowl.
- Add the raisins, pineapple, nuts, and candied fruits to the bowl with the dry ingredients, so that they are coated in flour. This will stop the various fruits from sinking into the dough while baking.
- In another bowl, mix the butter (previously diced, and softened) with the sugar. It is easier to do this step with a wooden spoon, and then pass on to use an electric mixer once the butter has been incorporated to the sugar. Once the batter is rather homogenous, add one egg at a time to the mixture, and continue beating it with the electric mixer, until all eggs have been incorporated and you have a quite smooth batter.
- Add the batter to the bowl with the dry ingredients, and stir well.
- Add the glass of whisky to the dough, and stir well.
- Grease a tin (I used a 22cm cake tin, but you can use a 900g loaf tin too) and dust it with flour, pour the dough into the tin, and make the surface even using a wooden spoon.
- Place tin in the oven at 160°C and bake for an hour and a half – check with skewer, it should come out clean. The cake may look still a bit damp when you take it out of the oven, so leave it on a rack to dry for a few hours before decorating.
- Brush the cake with whisky every day until you are actually planning to eat it – this will keep the cake moist, and keep it fresh for longer. You shouldn’t eat it straightaway after baking it!
- When you’re ready to decorate your fruitcake, place a little apricot jam in a small pan with a bit of water and simmer for a couple of minutes. Let it cool and then brush the top of the cake with this mixture so that is all covered and sticky. Now you can place the nuts and fruits on top as you wish, and remember to brush them again with the glaze so that they set and do not fall off the cake.
- You’re all set now, enjoy!
Truman Capote. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. London: Penguin Books, 2000.