Thanksgiving is America’s best holiday. It’s unencumbered with gifts and cards and similar commercial holiday paraphernalia. There is no long, drawn-out prelude to the holiday beginning after Labor Day. And although the point is giving thanks to whichever deity one believes in, it doesn’t harp on the issue — a shared prayer at the dinner table is generally regarded as sufficient. Following that prayer is the high point and main point of the holiday — an over-the-top feast shared with family and friends. What more could one ask for?
Growing up, everyone in my house contributed something to the feast whether it was making cranberry relish or baking a pie. Lots of focused, shared activity and good smells. Around four in the afternoon, if it wasn’t raining, my father would organize a walk. We’d tramp through the sere fields and bare woods of our farm. Often it was cold, but if it wasn’t cloudy as well Dad would take pictures of us. (Something I particularly hated.) Then we’d return to a waiting fire and the last minute organization of the meal.
Like many families, the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Christmas season. Unlike most families this didn’t mean shopping. Instead Mom and Dad would begin preparing the Christmas feast. Dad made his eggnog base (which then aged for a month) and a fruit cake. Mom made her mother’s Bourbon Cake.
With an electric mixer, she’d beat the butter and sugar together in a large stainless steel bowl and then mix in the eggs, flour, and bourbon producing an unremarkable cake batter. Then Dad would haul down “the big bowl” for the final step.
The big bowl, cut from a single block of mahogany, was about 20″ in diameter and about 7″ deep. It needed to be big to accommodate the exertions required to incorporate a pound of nuts and a pound-and-a-half or raisins in a single bowl of batter. Once mixed, the cake went into a tube pan and then baked for 3 1/2 hours, filling the house with the most wonderful odors.
When the cake had cooled it was wrapped in aluminum foil, doused with more bourbon, and sealed in a cake tin. Then, once a week until Christmas, the cake would be uncovered and doused with more bourbon. Although potent, even as kids we were permitted a very thin slice of it when it was finally served. We loved it. In fact, everyone who tried it loved it.
I’ve posted the recipe before, but I wanted to post it again – and do so in time, for those of you interested in a holiday cake recipe dating back to the early 1900s (or earlier), to make it. Note: a good stand mixer obviates the need for “the big bowl.”
1 c butter — softened
2 c sugar
4 c flour — sifted
4 ea eggs
1 lb pecan pieces
1 1/2 lb white or golden raisins
1 c bourbon
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp soda
1/2 tsp salt
Heat oven to 275F. Sift 1 cup flour and mix with nuts and raisins. Sift remaining flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and soda together. Grease a tube pan and line bottom with parchment paper.
Cream sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, making sure each is incorporated before adding the next one. Alternately add bourbon and flour. Add nuts and raisins.
Pour into tube pan and bake 3 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and cool thoroughly.
Sprinkle generously with additional bourbon and wrap in aluminum foil with a couple of apple wedges to keep it moist. Each weekend leading up to Christmas, unwrap cake and sprinkle again with additional bourbon.
My mother no longer makes the cake, but I have her tube pan and her recipe and I’m trying to make it every year and share it with my parents and siblings. Fortunately, it’s pretty much immune to spoiling so mailing it to Vermont or Virginia isn’t a problem.
This article was originally published on Seriously Good, November 6, 2005.
KevinÂ Weeks is a Gather food correspondent (Paisano), personal chef, cooking teacher, and writer in Knoxville, Tennessee who spends too many hours on his feet, cooking. “Paisano” is a column focused on peasant dishes from around the world. To read more of Kevin’s writings or connect to him click here. His blog,Seriously Good, is read by 100,000 cooks a month and in addition he writes a weekly column for Spot-Onand is the Guide for Cooking for Two at About.com.