It’s mid autumn and I’m at the St Mary’s Farmers Market. The colours are brilliant orange, crimson and green. Apples, pumpkins and squash amuse the children while moms walk around with bouquets of fresh kale to make the latest delicious, kid friendly kale chips. The sun is shining, the air is brisk and Joan Brady of Smoky Hollow Farm Market offers up steaming cups of coffee, tea and hot apple cider for market shoppers.
As I stood there warming my hands around a porcelain mug (yes, Joan is happy to do the dishes!) of hot cider a little 4-year old boy came up, ordered 2 chocolate chip cookies and handed over his loonie. “He comes here every week and buys the same thing,” Joan smiles, “it’s their family’s tradition to come to the Saturday morning market.” The boy takes his purchase and runs back to his mom who is chatting a few yards away with neighbours. Farmers’ markets are great community gathering places.
Mary Szabo of The Nutty Baker and her daughter Anna are at the St Marys Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning. A former hog farmer, Mary is now an avid baker and each week her loyal customers look forward to her scones, mini loaves, cheesecakes, muffins and cookies. She’s sells quickly.
In the far corner of her table I notice a pile of dark, almost black, mini loaves. The sign says Christmas Cakes. I could hardly believe my eyes. Just over Thanksgiving and deep into Halloween party planning I’m looking at Christmas cakes – like the summer harvests from the fields, I’m feeling like I just can’t keep up!
Yes, along with apples, pumpkins, squash, beets and leeks, Mary explains it’s also Christmas cake season. Mary, I’ve learned is the St Marys Queen of Christmas Cakes. The little cakes are dark brown and filled with loads of dried fruit, nuts and spices.
For anyone who loves making traditional Christmas cakes you know that this is the time of year to bake them because this little edible icons of holiday cheer needs time to brew, ferment and mature. So Mary’s customers buy them and take them home to finish them off. Some of them brush the little cakes every few weeks with dark rum, others prefer to drizzle it over top. Either way, it’s a secret ritual that starts now and ends when the cake is cut and shared on Christmas day.
To store fruitcake for the next 2 months it needs to be wrapped up tightly, placed in and air tight container and stored in a cold cellar or refrigerator until the holiday season.
Mary’s Christmas fruitcake is so popular she’s sold out by the end of market day and so she’ll bake another 2 dozen for the next week knowing some of her customers who were disappointed today will be back.
So what makes Mary’s fruitcake so delicious? She’s not telling, but would explain that she arrived at her recipe by blending the best parts of 5 or 6 (she can’t recall exactly) different tried and true fruitcake recipes. The best fruitcakes in Mary’s opinion has almonds, lemon rind, vanilla and rum. “You just can’t skimp on the quality of fruit and oh yea, lots of butter.” Mary also says you need to have patience for the longer you feed it and leave it, the better it gets. Happy fruitcake season!