Up A Country Lane. December 6, 2017
The Christmas season is fast approaching. With it come fruitcakes, as much a part of the holidays as evergreen trees, Santa Claus, and stockings hung by the fireplace.
I first became aware of fruitcake when I was ten years old. Some members of my father’s congregation gave our family a fruitcake for Christmas. It was dry and tough to chew, but my parents insisted we should always be kind, no matter the situation. We thanked those who gave us the cake and appreciated their kindness, but after one bite, I decided not to eat any more.
The following Christmas the same friends gave us another fruitcake, as dry and tasteless as the first one had been. That continued for two more Christmases until my father was transferred to another church and we moved away from that town. It was a relief to escape the gift of not very good fruitcake.
In recent years I’ve found a fruitcake that really is delicious. That story begins with Bob and Marvis Leech, two of our dear friends in Sidney. Their son Greg was in the same grade school and high school class as our son Craig, and became great friends.
Both boys were Cub Scouts together. One project of their Scout group was for each boy to research a building in town, make a cardboard cutout of it, and prepare a report.
The evening of the Cub Scout parents’ night, the boys took turns making their presentations. Greg stood up with his cardboard building and announced in a loud voice, “I am the courthouse!”
For some reason, that stuck as a nickname for Greg. To this day our family affectionately calls him “Courthouse Leech.”
I recently called him at his office. “Hello, Courthouse!” I said when he came on the line.
“Oh, it’s a Birkby!” he answered.
We had a wonderful visit full of warmth and humor. After catching up with news of our families, I asked Greg to tell me what he knew about fruitcakes.
Greg told me that after majoring in business and accounting at Northwest Missouri State University, he had taken a job at a bakery in Beatrice, Nebraska. The bakery featured a fruitcake recipe that the Lantz brothers, two German immigrants, had found in 1917 in their grandmother’s trunk.
“Use only the freshest ingredients!” she had written. Those included raisins, cherries, pineapple, a variety of nuts, and bourbon, rum, and brandy. She also spelled out a secret way to bake the cakes to make them mellow and delicious.
Today the firm is the Beatrice Bakery Company and Greg is president and chief executive officer. The bakery’s featured product is Grandma’s Original Fruit & Nut Cake, still using the recipe of the Lantz brothers’ grandmother.
Like that grandmother, Greg is convinced that the key to a great fruitcake is using the freshest ingredients, the secret baking process, and the right amount of rum, brandy, and bourbon.
The liquor adds wonderful flavor and helps preserve the cake. Just so you know, Greg reminded me that when you bake something with liquor in it, it cooks off the alcohol. “No one is going to get drunk on our fruitcake,” he laughed.
Grandma’s Original Fruit & Nut Cakes are recognized as the best in their field. They and the Beatrice Bakery Company have been featured on the Food Network, A&E Biography, ABC’s The View, and in magazine and newspaper articles.
Last month, the QVC network’s Gourmet Holiday program highlighted the 100th anniversary of Grandma’s Fruit & Nut Cake recipe. They pointed out that “This cake has been a favorite holiday tradition for many families!”
The fruitcakes are sold throughout the United States, Canada, and in Puerto Rico. They are also marketed on military bases around the world. Locally, you can find Grandma’s Fruitcakes at many grocery stores and some arts and crafts outlets as well as online at beatricebakery.com.
I thanked my friend Courthouse Leech for the good conversation and told him I hoped to see him soon. I only wish that when I was ten years old the family who gave us that dry, chewy fruitcake had used Grandma’s Fruit & Nut Cake recipe instead.
Here’s a recipe from my December 10, 1973, column to enjoy sometime soon. Happy Holidays!
4 cups sifted flour
1 tsp. soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup shortening
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
2/3 cup buttermilk
½ tsp. burnt sugar flavoring
½ tsp. vanilla flavoring
1 cup nuts, chopped
1 cup candied cherries, quartered
2 cups dates, chopped
1 cup candied fruits and peel
Sift flour, soda and salt together. Cream shortening, add brown sugar and eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Combine buttermilk and flavorings. Add to creamed mixture. Stir in sifted dry ingredients. Fold in remaining ingredients. Chill dough. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheet. Top each cookie with a nut or piece of candied fruit, if desired. Bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from cookie sheet and cool. Makes about 8 dozen. Freezes very well.