Optimistically baking my way through a challenging day

Babies at the altar: Brian and Barbara with Father Patrick Carroll on December 15, 1979.

AT THE SAME HOUR as I write this, 42 years ago today Barbara and I and a flock of family and friends trooped into St. Joseph’s Church on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Outside, snow fell lightly. Inside, by an altar decorated with red poinsettias, my sweetheart and I said our wedding vows.

We’d been best friends for years by that point. Lovers for a while. At the time, I didn’t think twice about the “till death do us part” clause in what we said before that assemblage. But here we are.

I assumed today would be one of my more difficult days of 2021, but when I awakened this morning, rather than desolation I felt optimistic about quietly commemorating December 15, 1979, a date that’s engraved in gold on the inside of the wedding ring that I can’t imagine taking off.

Yes, it’s just me and the cat here in our island cabin today. It’s not what I’d choose. But I greeted this morning with a feeling of gratitude more than grief. I will always cherish the good luck that brought me and Barbara together. Divorce statistics demonstrate how many people struggle to find their soulmate. Many never do.

Our friendship and marriage brought so many good things to both of our lives, the best being our delightful daughter, Lillian.

One of my favorite latter-day photos of us, touring Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle in 2017.

I got out of bed this morning with the intent of doing some Christmas baking, something new for me. That was Barbara’s department, because she enjoyed it and was so good at it.

But it wouldn’t be Christmas without Yule Cake, a recipe we’ve kept for years in a binder of my mother’s favorite recipes. This recipe is in Mom’s own swirling handwriting, with a note at the top, “I’ve made several of these every Christmas for nearly 50 years.” Who knows when she wrote that. Eleanor Mary Elizabeth Cantwell died at age 88 in 2006. Barbara maintained the Yule Cake tradition since then. And now it’s up to me.

Many cringe at the idea of tooth-achingly sugary Christmas fruitcake, but that’s because they’ve never had this Yule Cake. Yes, it has some sweet fruit — orange peel, cherries, raisins and dates — but it’s more a nut cake. Baked in a large loaf pan for two full hours at 300 degrees, this cake contains 1 1/2 cups each of whole Brazil nuts and whole walnuts. With only 3/4 cup flour, moistened by three beaten eggs, there’s barely enough cake to hold all those nuts together. But sliced into small squares, nothing goes better with a cup of hot coffee on a cold winter morning. Later in the day, a bit of stinky Stilton cheese and a snifter of port are Yule Cake’s perfect complements.

The oven timer is about to ring. We’ll see if it worked. It’s my celebration of the Cantwell women on this cold middle day of December with a sky that looks like snow. Just as it did 42 years ago.

Out of the oven, my first attempt at Yule Cake looks pretty good. Let’s hope it’s edible.

Yule Cake recipe

  • 1 1/2 cups Brazil nut meats, whole
  • 1 1/2 cups walnut halves, unchopped
  • 7 ounces pitted dates, whole or sliced in half
  • 2/3 cup candied orange peel, chopped
  • 1/2 cup whole red maraschino cherries, drained
  • 1/2 cup whole green maraschino cherries, drained
  • 1/2 cup seedless raisins
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar, or sugar substitute
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Grease the bottom and sides of a large loaf pan and line it with parchment paper. Lightly grease the paper.

Place nuts and fruit in a large mixing bowl. Measure all dry ingredients into a sifter and sift over the fruit and nuts. Mix well.

Beat eggs until light and frothy. Add vanilla. Blend into fruit and nut mixture. Batter will be stiff. Spoon mixture into pan and spread evenly.

Bake at 300 F. for 1 3/4 to 2 hours (105 to 120 minutes). Cool on rack for 10 minutes before removing from pan and paper.

Hint: If shelling your own Brazil nuts, freeze them first for easier cracking. Easier: Trader Joe’s sells shelled Brazil nuts.