Monday, October 23, 2006

God is in the Details and in Fruitcake too.

“God is in the details” is a phrase that I heard over and over while in college. It is a quote attributed to Mies van der Rohe, the German born American architect who helped define the clean minimalist spaces of modern architecture in the twentieth century. While I never cared much for his style, I whole heartedly appreciate his assertion that details matter. They absolutely do. I admit I feel a little embarrassed to seemingly contradict myself on the matter. Time and time again I have written posts which flagrantly espouse an exuberant, unrestrained throw-it-together attitude towards cooking which appear as though all good sense and attention have abandoned me forever. There are definitely times that I am on the cusp, the wild edge of dangerous tomfoolery. But usually, I feel the inner quiet calm of a cook who understands the parameters of her kitchen and the ingredients which reside within it. I have spent years observing and quantifying the minutia of my surrounding environment. Part of what was drilled into my education, was how to see, how to keep looking, sifting through different lenses in order to understand the greater whole. Literally a detail can make all the difference between something that compels or repels, whether a salad, a sentence or a song.

In the kitchen, it is fun to experiment with an ingredient, explore its range and consequently re-interpret it. I am a student of food, forever taken by the many faces of it, so much that occasionally while daydreaming a whole personality and scenario might emerge out of something as mundane as a loaf of bread. Recently while looking at a photo of a sweet blushing cake demure in a shower of powder white sugar and topped with a single ruby rose, I imagined this charming confection to be the embodiment of Ivonne its creator over at Creampuffs in Venice. The thought evolved into a question between the two of us: What kind of dessert would best personify you?

The first response might be to utter the name of one’s favorite dessert, but that is not necessarily the same thing, although supposedly we are what we eat. Almost immediately two portraits come to mind: Croquembouche- a highly stylized pyramid of cream puffs bedecked in dramatic flourishes of nougat and spun sugar or Fruitcake- deep, dark and mysterious jeweled from within, a little going a long way. I admit that Croquembouche appeals to the inner fantastical me, the side that dreams of parading around in dramatic brocade period pieces and wig or donning on a native costume embellished with winking abalone shells, tightly anchored rows of hummingbird feathers and a necklace of porcupine quills. But the vision doesn’t make the translation to outer reality; there is no walk on the wild side for me. Far too practical minded, I decorate my drama with restraint. Which brings me to fruitcake and believe me, I know how that sounds. You see I had a fruitcake conversion about three years ago, climbing my way up from hermit cookies to pfeffernusse, from Pannetone to Panforte.

J_ was making a groom’s cake in honor of her niece’s upcoming marriage. The plan was to make a traditional English dark fruitcake to give away as wedding favors to the attendees. I heard about this wonderful recipe which served over one hundred people, the special deep hatbox shaped pan the cake was baked in, the precise way to slice an individual serving and parcel it up for gifting. It seemed like a lot of work, one year in advance. Time to age and improve it-- or so the plan was. A drunken bevy of fruit was made. Instead of a few cups of brandy, two bottles were used, the fruit macerating silly for months. Brilliant I thought, cheering her on from the side lines of my home. I really didn’t hear about the cake for months while it ripened in dark secrecy, until it was time for the unveiling and partitioning. What I remember later about that conversation was a lot of frustrated hand gestures and fragmented sentences conveying bungled up geometry. Essentially one is trying to get the most slightly-bigger-than-a-matchbox slivers out of a deep form. After a lot of effort, the cake was cut into pretty packages and what remained was a mountain of crumby bits. Apparently the long soak drove the moisture content up and the cake lost its structural integrity. Though only morsels they represented much more in time, effort and cost. With that she salvaged the remains gathering them up into plum sized nuggets and enrobed the sweetmeats in dark chocolate. This was my re-introduction to fruitcake and it was ambrosial. Since then I have been haunted by the taste. It had a depth, richness and complexity that lingered on the tongue and crept up into my nasal cavities, perfuming me from within with spice and warmth and goodness.

Fruitcake is beautifully strong on the outside. It possesses a simple uncluttered line whether brick like loaf or high waisted ring. (Generally) It doesn’t go-to-pieces when cut, leaving a messy residue of crumbs behind. A slice is a vision to behold, stained glass mosaic revealing an inner sanctum of bounty and grace. I secretly wonder if in addition to incense, frankincense and myrrh, the three wise men came bearing fruitcake to the newborn King. The cake is the proverbial horn of plenty, treasure trove of riches, a storehouse of goodness. No wonder men of God busy themselves in the production of this sacred food. Historically it has been suggested that it was made after harvest time in gratitude, eaten to celebrate and bless the next year’s crop. I can appreciate the fact that these cakes were used in ceremony and that they are made to last, merging the practical with the symbolic. It also has been said that Queen Victoria only ate this high calorie, well preserved decadently rich treat once a year upon her birthday. She believed this restraint showed the proper amount of good taste. While a touch on the prudish side, I can still relate.

The cake is a colorful map of time and place. It is a citizen of the world with a collection of ingredients hailing from all over: Medjool dates from Morocco, Turkish sultanas and apricots, pecans from Texas, Sri Lankan cinnamon and cognac from France. The recipe and process are both simple and direct, yet allow for spontaneous customization. I resonate with a process that can be done in slow meditative fashion- the lengthy accumulation of ingredients, the shelling and roasting of nuts, the slicing of dried/candied fruit, the soak in good spirits, and the long low bake in the oven. Still yet, the good cake is drizzled again with more liquor and set away to cure and improve with age. The transformation once complete allows all disparate parts to meld and softly underscore each other creating a sweet that is sophisticated yet down-to-earth, spiced without being frenzied, bold yet subtly subdued and truly something of heaven and earth. Eaten as refreshment with some bracing black tea, dark chocolate dipped fruitcake reminds me of how splendid and bounteous life can be.

And how about you, what kind of dessert would you be?

Ivonne at Cream Puffs in Venice, Lis at La Mia Cucina and Gattina at Gattina


Ivonne said...


How thrilled I was to read this post! Firstly because I think the idea is unique, original and inspiring.

And secondly because it is so postively fun to imagine a dessert as our embodiment.

To me, you are the most beautiful charlotte imagineable!

gattina said...

oh what a wonderful post... it's just like the fruit cake, worth for me coming back and reading over and over, my thought will be deepen everytime! Thanks for inviting me to join, let me think about that :D

Callipygia said...

Ivonne, in this cyberworld we are meeting so many people and forming impressions about each other based on so many details minus our faces. I was a little overwhelmed by this project, so many things to think about.

Gattina, I can't wait to see what you come up with.

Lis said...

Well my friend, you've certainly made me look at fruitcake in a different light. =)

Another fantastic post.. as always, I'm leaving with lots to think about after reading your entries. How I love that.

Thanks for thinking of me to join in, I'd be delighted! But first, I must think long and hard about what kind of dessert I'd be... ;)

Callipygia said...

Lisa, yeah I think this assignment is sort of hard- really now that I think about it, the answer keeps that a problem?

miragee said...

This is certainly an interesting question. I LOVE desserts. As a matter of fact, I am going to visit a friend this afternoon, and before that, I am going to an Italian restaurant for some cakes. But I have to admit that I hardly study the inner qualities that different cakes represent.

I do have a soft spot for Tiramisu anyway...It's not fancy-looking, but there are so many layers of different ingredients. Can I say it's quite me:-)?

Callipygia said...

Tiramisu is rich and sweet, dreamy with a shot of reality to it. I'd say it could be you, the details you hone in on unite reality with the dream world.

Alexiev said...

Cool... muy interesante trabajo...


jbird said...

Well, it is never to early to be thinking about that I've already bought the much touted snowflake stamps for Xmas.
If you start now, you can really maximize the booziness of the cake. ;-)
Definitely a pecan pie here, crusty on the outside, a bit sappy on the inside.
I am seeing a strange theme here...was listening to NPR about people/kids who like books with sad endings, you are a person who like food that are well, not generally the prom queens of the gastronomical world....and yet you make all of us want to take a second look, sauerkraut....spam....beets....and now the much boo-hooed fruitcake.
Va Bene!

Callipygia said...

alexiev- Gracias!
jbird- I know that is what you get for being the wierd kid who plays a big instrument, you start defending other underdogs.