January 18, 2022

Philanthropic fruitcake Cutler woman’s family recipe enhances reputation of much-aligned holiday goody

It’s a wonder that fruitcake can rise at all, with the weight of all those negative expectations piled on it.

We’ve all heard the jokes about using the fruity concoction as bricks or doorsteps.

Even the esteemed Style columnist Emmet Meara got into the act last season with his own history of the fruitcake: “In the Middle Ages, a demented peasant found dried fruit that had been left in a well for several centuries. He mixed them with spices and honey and added them to bread dough that was too old and too hard for anything else. He baked the mixture and gave the end product to his hated wife, Dementia, who also was too old and hard for anything else. She, of course, would not touch the invention and passed it on to her enemies, an event that was widely believed to bring on the ‘Dark Ages.'”

Joan Waag can sympathize with people’s negative perceptions about fruitcake. She’s tried bad ones herself.

“Fruitcakes you buy in stores are dry, and [have] mostly citron, and don’t taste good,” she said.

Still, over the past eight years, the Cutler woman, aided by her husband, Joe, and friends Frank and Pat Green, has done her best to convert Washington County with her Old-Fashioned English Fruitcake. She’s finding believers in her cause, as she’s gone from making 12 pounds in the beginning to 250 pounds last year.

With the converting that the Waags and Greens are doing, it’s only appropriate that the proceeds from the fruitcake go to a church, in this case St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church on Dublin Hill in Machias.

The secret to the St. Aidan’s fruitcake is not skimping when it comes to the ingredients.

“Everything’s got to be fresh,” Joan said. “I’m really fussy about the quality.”

The St. Aidan’s fruitcakes are sent as far away as California, Pennsylvania, even Spain.

The fruitcake’s fans will testify about its taste.

Gail Parker bought five last year to give as gifts, but ended up sending only one. She bought five again this year, and was eating her second one five days later.

“They are beautiful, very moist,” said the Eastport woman. “I’ve had store-bought ones that aren’t any good at all. But these are exceptional.”

Bob Elmer of Bucks Harbor has bought the fruitcakes for the past five years, both for himself and as gifts.

“It’s absolutely delicious,” said Elmer, a former bush pilot who flew in Alaska part of the year. “I’ve never had a fruitcake like that. How do you describe something that’s so incredible?”

The Rev. Dana Kennedy of Milbridge is another fan.

“We got started because it was St. Aidan’s selling them,” said the retired Episcopal priest. “We want them for their own sake now. We just like the taste of them.”

After moving to Cutler from New York’s Westchester County, Joan wanted to take part in a hospital craft fair in Machias, which sold homemade items. She had her family fruitcake recipe, so she made it and took a batch to the fair, and kept getting requests for more afterward. A fund-raiser was born.

Until this year, the two couples did all the work themselves. Now Joan has taught six others how to mix and bake the fruitcake, even holding a little workshop. Other parishioners handle delivery and the preparation of packaging labels and ingredient lists.

The fruitcake season isn’t that long, but it is busy. The Waags start collecting the ingredients in October. They start their baking in early November, about the same time as the orders start coming in. They store the ingredients and refrigerate finished fruitcakes in their garage.

On a recent day, the Waags and the Greens had gathered for a day of making fruitcake, to create two 25-pound batches. Bowls of ingredients lined the island of the Waags’ kitchen. The menfolk sat grating oranges and lemons.

When all the ingredients were ready, they were poured, one by one, in a big vat. Frank Green started stirring with a large wooden spoon. The mixture soon became too stiff for that, so he scrubbed up then mixed the dough with his hands.

“I tried to convince them to get a cement mixer, but they wouldn’t go for it,” Frank joked.

After Frank got the dough thoroughly mixed, the two women scooped it into disposable aluminum bread pins, stopping a bit below the rim.

“You need to leave a little room for the soaking liquid,” Joe explained.

The fruitcakes are baked at 250 F for three hours for the smaller-sized cake or four hours for the larger, family-sized cake. Pans of water are placed underneath to keep them moist. About a half-hour before the cakes are done, Joan decorates them with candied cherries and walnuts and pours light Karo syrup over the top for a glaze.

Afterward, depending on the order, burgundy wine, apple juice or brandy are added to soak into the baked fruitcake for 24 hours. Then the cakes are wrapped, first in clear plastic, then in Christmas wrap, for delivery or mailing.

The fruitcake should be stored in a cool place, and can last up to a year in the refrigerator or longer in the freezer, Joan said. It should be allowed to breathe for 20 minutes before slicing, so it won’t crumble.

“It should sit for a week [after baking] before you eat it, to let the spices mingle and get to know each other,” she added.

The fruitcake season ends with Christmas. In fact, the Waags throw a party for their helpers to celebrate its end.

“I don’t want to even think about how long it takes,” Joan said. “We’re retired, so we can do this.”

The fruitcake sales are the biggest fund-raiser for the church. Last year, it raised $1,400 toward St. Aidan’s annual budget of $33,000. The church has a winter congregation of 35 to 40, which grows to around 50 in the summer.

The Rev. Thomas Halkett, the vicar of St. Aidan’s, said he was a fruitcake fan even before the Waags joined his congregation.

“I like fruitcake,” he said. “My grandmother always used to send a fruitcake every year, and [the St. Aidan’s fruitcake] tastes a lot like hers.”

The fruitcakes cost $6 for the 1-pound size and $14 for the 3-pound size.

“People donate ingredients and money for ingredients,” Joan explained. “That’s why we can afford to sell them way underpriced. It’s our way of saying Merry Christmas to the community and helping St. Aidan’s at the same time.”

To place an order, call the Waags at 259-3448.

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