By Becky Billingsley
Holiday dishes served at the South Carolina coast have influences from several cultures (German, Scottish, Irish, French, African), but about an hour west of Myrtle Beach the roots run deep to 17th-century England. That heritage is found in a generations-old recipe called Packed Fruitcake.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Julia Mood Peterkin (1880-1961) wrote about old southern ways in her books and articles, and in a slim book published in 1934 called “A Plantation Christmas,” she mentions “Christmas cakes.”
“Our Christmas preparations begin as soon as Thanksgiving is over,” she wrote, “when the Christmas cakes are baked and put away to ripen, with oiled paper wrapped carefully around them to hold the delicious flavor of the scuppernong wine which has been carefully poured all over their dark brown crusts.”
Scuppernong wine is extremely sweet, and while Peterkin didn’t give a recipe, her Christmas cakes are likely similar to the one Levon Hucks grew up eating at his mother’s table in western Horry County.
“At Christmastime,” he said, “… My mother made a certain kind of fruitcake called a packed fruitcake. We always looked forward to that. She baked it in the oven in a pan, and every [few] minutes, she would stir it. When it got cooked to a certain level, she packed it into a tin, sprinkled a little grape juice on top to keep it moist. It would solidify and become almost like a cheesecake, but with fruit, raisins, coconut, pecans, walnuts and pineapple mixed in with it. Maybe on top little cherries.”
Levon’s mother, Maxine James Hucks, thankfully left instructions for making her holiday treat. From start to finish, it takes less than an hour to make seven 7-inch round cakes.
3 sticks butter, room temperature
¼ cup Crisco or lard
2 cups sugar
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons vanilla
8 drops yellow food coloring
4 cups self-rising flour, divided
3 pounds raisins
2 pounds pecans or walnuts or both, chopped
1 bag shredded coconut
1 large jar maraschino cherries, drained
1 large can crushed pineapple, well drained
5 ounces of organic grape juice.
Gathering ingredients – mise en place – helps keep this recipe flowing smoothly.1. In a large bowl, cream together butter, Crisco and sugar. Add eggs, cream, vanilla and food coloring and blend well.
2. In a separate large bowl, mix together 1 cup of the flour, raisins, nuts and coconut.
Mix wet and dry ingredients separately.
3. Set your oven to preheat to 350F.
4. In a large stockpot, blend the contents of the two bowls in layers with the remaining 3 cups flour in this way: Put half the nut mixture in the pot, then half the butter mixture, then 2 cups of flour. Blend that, then add the remaining nuts, butter mixture and one cup of flour. Don’t be afraid to use your hands to get it well mixed.
Blend the wet and dry ingredients in a stockpot or other large container.
5. Divide this batter between two 13”x9” cake pans and place in your 350F preheated oven.
Place the batter in two cake pans to bake.
6. Bake for five minutes, and then take the pans out of the oven and stir them with a large spoon. Be sure to scrape around the pans’ edges and get the more well-done bits mixed in with parts that are still runny.
7. Repeat baking for 5 minutes and then stirring, about four or five times, for a total of 20-25 minutes in the oven. You want them to be golden brown but still moist. If you cook them until the cake part is completely dry, then they won’t pack well.
Stir every five minutes until the batter is golden brown and sticky.
8. Divide the mixture among seven 7” round cake tins that have first been sprayed with baking spray. With a rubber glove on your hand, firmly press the cake into the pan, compacting it as tight as you can. (Note: I found the tins priced at four for $1 at Dollar Tree.)
Press the fruitcake firmly into seven round tins.
9. After the cakes are cooled, sprinkle the grape fruit juice on top of the cakes. You want the juice to soak in and not pool up. (It's about 3/4 of a small juice box - the tiny hole where the straw goes makes a juice box perfect for sprinkling.)
Drizzle the cakes’ tops with grape juice
10. Once the cakes cool. Cover them and refrigerate until ready to eat. Slices can be served cold or at room temperature.
After chilling at least overnight, slices can be enjoyed cold or at room temperature.
Becky Billingsley is the author of