The Right Time for Baking Methodist Cake: A Pairing of Food, Wine and Family Tradition
I was moved by Alfonso Cevola’s blog (On the Wine Trail in Italy) one day this past week. The topic was his 98 year old mother, her fruit cake and zeal for life that he obviously shares. His blog was part lament on people justly or unjustly hating fruit cake. Yet, it was also a salute to his mother’s focus on the her annual tradition of making fruit cake and how she was “out in front of it” baking her fruit cake despite the travails of the hectic holiday season.
As I read Alfonso’s blog, I reflected back on my 101 year old mother’s passing this past July. She had a special holiday cake recipe, too. Her’s was Methodist cake. I really don’t know why it’s called Methodist cake, I never asked her, and my Google search yesterday didn’t identify the genesis of Methodist cake in the kitchen of John or Charles Wesley; that would have been too easy. I guess that it’s named for this religious group (our group), because just like the stereotypical Methodist, Methodist cake isn’t flash and unlike the sparkle of a freshly baked fruit cake. Maybe, it’s a contrast to another holiday delicacy – rum cake, knowing the propensity for Methodists to be teetotalers. Her answer to my question, like many others that I’ve just now realized I needed to ask her, will remain unanswered and left for me to ponder and discuss with family and friends (or to occupy space on my blog).
Like Alfonso’s mother, my mother Beatrice, always seemed to be out front of it as Christmas time approached. No matter how busy she was, getting ready for Christmas (making chocolate chip cookies, mash potatoes, buying stocking stuffers and, oh yes, writing letters and sending cards to family and friends around the world), up until last year, she was always getting things ready for her Methodist cake.
My mother lived on her own and in her own home up until about six months of her passing. Afterwards, we retrieved many of her most precious things: handmade quilts, picture albums, cookbooks, and a small box of handwritten recipes. After reading Alfonso’s blog, I located the small wooden box and thumbed through the index cards until I found it (mother’s Methodist cake recipe) complete with her greasy thumbprint at the top that made me stop for a moment to ponder this small testament of her being.
I’ve got to confess that I really never liked my mother’s Methodist cake, thinking perhaps that it was from a time of lesser culinary arts than enjoyed today. There I said it, I was a Methodist cake snob. However, after seeing her thumbprint on the recipe card and the stains gained through the making of countless batches of cake batter year upon year (decade upon decade, too), I realized how much this recipe was a part of the fabric of our family life. It was then that I also realized that mothers’ recipes are laced with memories and are headstones of a sort that memorialize their contribution to family and culinary traditions that live long after they depart this Earth.
It was then that I decided to carry on my mother’s tradition and bake a Methodist cake or two. I cook, but I rarely attempt baking. I consider baking a far more exact science than cooking. Cooking is admittedly more art than science and a realm where repair or coverup of mistakes is much easier.
After searching my pantry and a trip to the market for some raisins, walnuts and shortening, I started the process. Part one was the cooking of raisins, cherries and nuts in the bright red juice of maraschino cherries laced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, sugar and shortening (organic – free of transfats, ergo healthier, I guess). Part two was combining this concoction with flour and baking soda to form the batter that was divided into two well oiled bread pans. Part three was baking for 45 minutes at 350 F while the familiar aroma permeated our house.
At the end, my wife and I sat in our living room sharing slices of Methodist cake under Beatrice’s watchful eyes, if only in photograph, but perhaps in the presence of her spirit, too. The cake was accompanied with what would likely be considered a distinctly non-Methodist beverage – wine, but one since her coming to Texas in 2011, Beatrice approved. It was a semi-sweet Muscat Canelli, from Texas no doubt (Hilmy Cellars).
A toast to Christmas, mothers and culinary traditions that sustain families through the passing of time. At this time of year, let us all eat cake; whatever our choice may be, or family traditions dictate.