In one of my past lives, I was a social worker for The Florida Department of Developmental Disabilities – aside from the poverty wage, it was a nice job to have at that point in my life – mostly, I spent the day driving from house to house of folks who had requested info on the new federal program, SSI (a rather revolutionary program for the time, which provided monetary support, medical insurance, and services for persons with DD).
Very few of the folks I was visiting sent me away without signing up for the program – in fact, most simply looked unbelivingly at me after my spiel, and asked, “What’s the catch?” Some did send me away – I think they simply couldn’t believe that the government could be trusted. They remind me a lot of the seniors today who are fighting the current health care restructuring efforts!
One of my other responsibilities was visiting area group homes – those were also the days when Florida was down-sizing its DD institutions, and moving those folks into the community. One of the group homes I would visit frequently was a huge old, two story Florida house in Zolfo Springs, run by Bertha Gaskins – Bertha had some eight ladies who lived at her house, and frankly, I always thought they were truly happy there – I know I’da been.
Now Bertha Gaskins was cut out of the old southern mold of housekeeper – she was proud of her cooking and baking skills, and rightly so. Her ladies ate as well as any other group home residents that I knew of. And Bertha was not above using food as leverage, whenever she could. Although we “state workers” knew we were not to accept “gifts”, there never was any such policy about joining everyone for a meal, once in a while. And I did so at Bertha’s, often.
I remember one day especially well – I popped in about 10 AM, right in the middle of a kitchen frenzy, and a most beautiful baking smell. “What is that luscious smell?”, I asked – “That’s the beginning of this year’s fruitcakes.”, Mrs Gaskins replied – “We’re doing 25 this year, and so far we’ve done 6. Sit down, and I’ll give you a taste.”
I remember that day being one of my taste epiphanies -I have had many- for that day was the first time I ever had a fruitcake that I really enjoyed. In between the many bites I had that day, Bertha told me that this fruit cake was a relatively famous one called, Mrs Harvey’s White Fruitcake – and from her memory, she jotted down the recipe while we sipped coffee and nibbled on this wonderful cake. I still have that scribbled recipe – and it’s prized – but even if I lose it, I know where to get a replacement, ’cause Mrs Harvey’s White Fruitcake is famous today, and rightly so.
Over the years, I’ve made this fruit cake many times – and always to raves. I’ve given away the cake and the recipe more times than I could remember, and I’ve never found anyone who said that it wasn’t the best fruit cake they’d ever tasted – at least not to me.
But actually, it’s not fair to compare this to ordinary fruitcake, because just a glance at the recipe is enough to let you know that this one is quite different – first, there’s only a few key ingredients: pecans, cherries, and pineapple – unusual. Next thing you notice is that there are no spices – hey, a Christmas cake with no spices? And then you notice the butter – a lot of butter! Most fruitcakes do not mess with so much butter. But the thing that makes this fruitcake unique above all other differences is the utterly huge amount of vanilla and lemon extract it requires.
Yup, this is a different duck, but that’s exactly why I love it above all other fruitcakes.
For more than thirty years, I’d been making Mrs Harvey’s Fruitcake, but I knew nothing about who Mrs Harvey was – so I set out to do a little sleuthing. What I discovered was that back in the ’50s, Lucile Harvey submitted a recipe to The Tampa Tribune for a fruitcake – she won $5 and second place! But for the next several years, the newspaper got so many requests for that 2nd place fruitcake recipe that they finally reprinted it – and the popularity of that recipe has grown so much that Mrs Harvey’s White Fruitcake is now reprinted in the Trib each year right after Thanksgiving. Mrs Harvey died in the mid ’80s, but her fruitcake recipe lives on as her memorial.
I think you’ll agree with me when I say that America is a collection place for 1000’s of bad fruitcakes and fruitcake recipes – but there are a few really good ones too. I personally believe that The Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, makes one of those good ones – but it ain’t cheap either! Well, Mrs Harvey never claimed that this recipe was of her inspiration, and I always thought that it tasted a lot like Collin Street Bakery’s version – so perhaps Mrs Harvey was also impressed by the Texas fruitcake and adapted her own version. I know that Mrs Harvey was quoted as saying that her husband did not like all the fruit in most fruitcakes, but that he loved pecans – and even Collin Street’s fruitcake has more kinds of fruit, and less pecans, than Mrs Harvey’s does. And then there’s the vanilla and the lemon extract! I have never seen such copious amounts of flavorings in any other fruitcake recipe – so I think we must credit Mrs Harvey with those adaptions.
So, without further ado, here’s Mrs Harvey’s White Fruitcake – a truly unique Christmas gem. I hope you’ll give it a try.
Mrs Harvey’s White Fruitcake
The Tampa Tribune, Nov. 29, 2009
4 cups shelled pecans
1 pound candied cherries
1 pound candied pineapple
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 pound butter
1 cup sugar
5 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 to 2 ounces vanilla extract (Your choice here as to amount – I go for the max, and it’s delicious!)
1/2 to 2 ounces lemon extract (Dito)
Chop nuts and fruit into medium-size pieces (save some whole for top of cake); dredge with 1/4 cup of flour. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs. Sift together remaining flour and baking powder; fold into butter-egg mixture. Stir in vanilla and lemon extracts. Blend in fruit and nuts.
Grease a 10-inch tube pan (or other size pans – see note below).
Line with parchment, wax paper or foil; grease again. Pour batter into prepared pan or pans – place saved fruit and nuts on top. Place in cold oven and bake 2 1/2 to 3 hours in tube pan or 2 hours in 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pans at 250 degrees. Check cakes 1 hour before done and again 30 minutes before. When done, remove from oven; cool in pans on cake rack.
Makes 5 pounds of fruitcake.
Note: In 4 1/2-by-2 1/2-by-1 1/2-inch (baby) loaf pans, bake cake about 1 hour. For 1-pound cakes in 2-pound coffee cans, bake about 2 hours. In 5-ounce custard cups, bake about 1 hour. And in ungreased foil bonbon cups (with liners), bake about 30 minutes.