Joni Woolf: Thanksgiving traditions to repeat at Christmas

Published 11:17 am Monday, November 27, 2017

Nobody eats fruit cake in July. Or ambrosia in August. There are probably good reasons for this. Fruit cake is a heavy, complex cake and one doesn’t think of it as a treat that might follow a hamburger cookout, or a light salad supper. Ambrosia, on the other hand, would be good any time of year, but perhaps because oranges are plentiful (and cheaper?) in the fall and winter months, it has become a tradition to serve that glorious dessert at holiday dinners. There are fruit cakes, and then there are variations such as the whiskey cake. It is unfortunate that in some circles fruit cake has gotten a bad rap and is often the butt of a bad joke about someone’s unhappy holiday dinner. I have had fruit cake that I really liked (my mother’s — she left out all that candied fruit and raisins and just had cherries and pecans and pineapple — not traditional perhaps, but good). And I’ve eaten the kind that comes in a long bar and is given away at Christmas-time, especially. It’s pretty good. But some 20 years ago, or so, “Country Living” magazine published a recipe from a Kentucky reader for Whiskey Cake, and I tried it. Since then I have made it several times, and I’ve gotten better about making it early and wrapping it in a whiskey-soaked  cloth, enhancing the flavor and preserving it for weeks. Although the recipe did not suggest the whiskey-soaked cloth, I learned that trick years ago on the farm, and find it still works. The recipe is simple enough, though care should be taken in the making of the cake.
Ambrosia is another, simpler matter. Who can mess up oranges? Slice them and eat them — with a few extras for garnish, of course. Recipes abound. But the purists among us (and I am printing the recipe of a purist) keep it very simple: oranges, coconut, sugar. The recipe source says presentation matters, so pay attention.

Whiskey Cake, with Glaze
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 ½ cups butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
6 egg yolks
1 ½ cups bourbon whiskey
3 cups light raisins
3 cups chopped pecans, lightly toasted
6 egg whites
6 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon water
½ cup dark brown sugar
¼ cup bourbon whiskey
½ cup pecan halves, lightly toasted
Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan, and set aside. Stir together flour and baking powder; set aside. In a large mixing bowl beat butter with electric mixer for 30 seconds. Gradually add granulated sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Add flour mixture and 1 ½ cups bourbon whiskey to the egg mixture alternately, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined. Fold the raisins and 3 cups pecans into the batter. In a clean mixer bowl with clean beaters, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into the batter. Pour the batter into prepared pan. Bake cake in a 325-degree F. oven for almost 1 ½ hours, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. If necessary, cover surface with foil to prevent overbrowning during the last 15 minutes of baking. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack 15 minutes. Remove cake from the pan and let it cool completely. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze. In a small saucepan melt 6 tablespoons butter. Stir in 1 tablespoon water and the brown sugar. Cook and stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Boil gently 5 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture thickens slightly. Carefully add ¼ cup bourbon whiskey. Bring to a boil. Cook and stir for 30 seconds. Remove half the glaze and set aside. Add pecans to remaining glaze in pan. Toss glaze to coat pecans. Pour pecans out onto waxed paper. Let glazed pecans and remaining glaze cool for 1 hour. Decorate the top of cake with glazed pecans. Drizzle remaining glaze over cake. Cover and store cake overnight for better slicing. So, here ends the recipe. After the cake has rested for a night, I soak a man’s white handkerchief (or similar white cloth) in whiskey (about ¼ cup) and put over top of cake, then wrap the cake in foil or an air-tight container. Every few days, moisten the handkerchief or cloth with more bourbon, keeping it damp, but not wet. It’s good if it stays in the refrigerator a couple of weeks.

James Villas, author of several cookbooks, wrote one with his mother, Martha Pearl, called “My Mother’s Southern Kitchen” in which he includes an ambrosia recipe. He confesses that after researching ambrosia through the ages, he began experimenting by adding grapefruit, only to have his mother hit the ceiling, saying “no real Southerner would ever corrupt this sacred formula with grapefruit!” So here it is, in its purest form, his mother’s ambrosia.

6 large oranges
½ cup sugar
2 cups freshly grated coconut
¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Peel the oranges, cutting away all the white pith, and carefully remove the orange sections from the membrane that surrounds them. In a crystal bowl (his mother believed in presentation), arrange a layer of orange sections across the bottom and sprinkle a little of the sugar and coconut on top. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used up, ending with a layer of coconut. Drizzle the orange juice over the top, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and chill well before serving in crystal compote dishes. (But if a clear plastic cup works for you, by all means, make the ambrosia, and eat it as you please. The point of all celebrations is to enjoy with those you love. I think Martha Pearl would agree.)

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at