Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review: San Francisco's Tante Marie cooking school reviews Fruitcake offered by New Camaldoli monastery, Big Sur
by Peter Menkin

Festivities of Christmas are marked by various factors, food one of the important parts of any celebratory season in the Christian year. In an effort to find out about fruitcake and its favor among those who enjoy this dessert in the Christmas season, we offered to review date nut cake

Chef Frances Wilson with two students

 and fruitcake made by Camaldoli Benedictine Monks in Big Sur, California and offered to those fans of such eating during the holiday season.

The monks at New Camaldoli have a special recipe for their fruitcake and have been making and offering it to the public for about 40 years. At one point, they baked their own fruitcake on the monastery premises, but now because of the need to renew their equipment, for the past few years they have been contracting the baking out to a Monterey, California bakery (a city not so far, nor not so near the Hermitage that is located near a very small town named Lucia on the coast by the Pacific Ocean).

Of the fruitcake, the monastery says, “Our carefully baked fruitcakes and date-nut cakes are aged at least 3 months in a temperature controlled environment. Our Hermitage fruitcakes are made with cherries, pineapples, California raisins, walnuts, dates, and Georgia pecans. Our date-nut cakes are made with choice California dates and fresh walnuts, which are blended with a variety of spices. Cakes are dipped in grape brandy and aged for 3 to 6 months.”

The real test of fruitcake, New Camaldoli created or not, is in the eating. To this end the culinary school, Tante Marie Cooking School, in San Francisco offered their services. One teacher and chef with her 12 or so students tasted the fruitcake and date nut cake to give a review of what they thought so as to find out if this fruitcake etc. is a worthwhile Christmas dessert. The sum of their investigation turned up a positive

New Camaldoli fruitcake ready for tasting

result: Yes, fruitcake is a good Christmas dessert, though not officially a religious food (what does that mean we wondered). The Hermitage fruitcake it was decided is a good and yummy cake, though those weren’t the reviewer’s words, but the idea was clear that both cakes found favor with the teacher and the students, with some reservations.

Before progressing too far into the tasting, first a context of who the school may be (Tante Marie, that is), and some of the results of the details involved in the review itself, let us address the question of the Christian nature of fruitcake. It is known that in some quarters fruitcake is a joke, a kind of rejected dessert provided by relatives of various families in times of Christmas dinner. Frequently passed around after Christmas in an effort to dispose of pieces of left over dessert, the fruitcake, primarily, can be found as a rejected Christmas treat. Is this a Christ-like dessert, to put it in the humorous way, for after all Christ even before birth could not find a place to be born, let alone accepted in his lifetime for what it is that he is as Son of Man and Savior of the world. Perhaps we reach too far with our metaphors.

This is California, a land of Culture Wars and what one editor said to me were “…the Christmas Wars…” How does one say “Happy Holidays,” becomes a culture war question in California and even some other States in the Union. It is almost as though saying “Merry Christmas,” is an affront. In stores like Macy’s and Sears the Christmas Season begins in October. Advertisers in newspapers, advertisers like Macy’s in particular who is cited here, have stopped saying, “Merry Christmas.” They simply state in large letters, “Believe.”

One Facebook friend not wanting to mention Christ, so it is presumed, offers this Holiday Explanation with Greeting: It is the Christmas season, a time when all levels of emotion ride the etheric waves. What we need to remember is that Christmas is not about presents, not about Church dogma, not really about the hypothetical birthdate of a man some 2000 plus years ago. It is about the celebration of Christ Consciousness, or if you prefer Universal Cosmic Conciousness or Buddha Counciousness. Enjoy, Love.

This writer replied: Merry Christmas!! Hurrah! for Buddha Consciousness, Cosmic Consciousness, Universal consciousness and the hypothetical birthday!!

Yes,, that it is out there, or a little wacky, or dare we say, “Fruitcake.”

Suffice it to say that this New Camaldoli Fruitcake and especially its Date Nut cake does not fall into the category of a faulty metaphor or a poor choice for a gift at Christmas time. It is not dried fruit with a cardboard texture, but a rich and moist, interesting flavorful treat that some

Publicity photo, the glamorous fruitcake

students and even the teacher-Chef found a little too much with an alcohol taste. Some will like that stronger brandy flavor, though. Neither fruitcake nor the date nut cake were found to be a failures, though another criticism in the serious tasting done in a holiday spirit of fun and celebration by the cooking school students at San Francisco’s store front culinary school was it had preservatives. For the record, here are the ingredients of the cakes:

Fruitcake Ingredients: Fruit mix (Cherries, pineapple, citrus peels, artificial colors & flavors, citric acid, and sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate—preservatives), raisins, sugar, dates, enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley, flour niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, potassium bromate), walnuts, pecans, water, brandy, butter, powdered egg yolks, wine, natural and artificial flavors, salt, bicarbonate of soda, spices, powdered egg whites, nonfat dry milk, vegetable gums (karaya & tragacanth) and starches.

Date-Nut Ingredients: Dates, diced walnuts, sugar, enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, potassium bromate), water, brandy, butter, powered egg yolks, wine, natural and artificial flavors, salt, bicarbonate of soda, spices, nonfat dry milk, powdered egg whites, vegetable gums (karaya & tragacanth) and starches.

In a telephone interview with Chef and teacher Frances Wilson at her home, she reported of the tasting: “(The date nut cake) was on the dryer side, but still pretty moist. The brandy dipped fruitcake much richer. The fruitcake reminded me a lot of English or Irish style Christmas pudding because it has whole cherries and was densely packed with fruit. It was very, very moist. And soaked in brandy. The Irish do it soaked in whiskey.”

Before going further with the review, Mary Risley, Chef, cookbook author, and school’s founder told us about Tante Marie: “We usually have fourteen to fifteen students at our storefront in north beach. The kitchen itself has everything on the home level so

Tante Marie School, Mary Risley (2nd from left)

it is not threatening, demonstrating one doesn’t need special equipment to cook. Half the school is for interested home cooks, half are those interested in wanting to go into the profession.

“We have a lot of wonderful successful students who have graduated. There are television personalities, cookbook authors. Shelly Lindgren she was a James Beard Award winner as the Wine Person of the year. She has two restaurants in San Francisco, one called A 16, and the other SPQR. She graduated in 2002. She is a successful restaurant owner, cook book author, and sommelier. I’ve had the school since 1979.”

 This is why Mary went with the tasting, to demonstrate her cooking premise again, and this assumes that fruitcake and date nut cake are civilized foods, but certainly that the Christmas festivities and eating itself are civilized. Mary Risley says, “We live in an era when people have gotten away from cooking and buying food. Cooking and eating is one of the good things in life. You can’t just pick up food like a raccoon. What makes us civilized is being able to prepare it in a delicious way. We are giving people the ability to prepare food and share it with others.” There the reader has Tante Marie’s reason to be.

Continuing with the interview with Chef and teacher Frances Wilson:

“I actually think the students preferred the date nut cake because they felt it was less of an alcohol flavor more of a cake texture. They all enjoyed both cakes and were not familiar with fruitcake, for Christmas breads we worked with were pantone and hallah, which are much plainer. They preferred them because they are plainer. They preferred the date cake because it was less sweet. Four of our students are Jewish.

“We ate about half of each one, and gave the rest away. The woman who does the dishes loved them. We give her a lot when we finish cooking. She was very excited she could take them home to her family.”

Afterthought by Frances: “The brandy dipped Fruitcake reminded me of home and friends and Christmas.” (Frances is Anglican.)

At this point in our conversation by phone at her home near San Francisco, Frances Wilson took over the conversation and began a lecture. She was responding to this writer’s comment on a student remark that they would not pay much for fruitcake, and it seemed that there was a touch of the independent sense of the student mentality regarding what was their tasting abilities as well as sensibleness of their pocketbooks. In other words, this was expensive fruitcake and date nut cake and better could be done other ways than buying it. Frances spoke to the point of their student attitude of, “I’ll make it myself,” and maybe they are right…:

I’m not sure how realistic that is (to think they can bake it so inexpensively), and these are culinary students and they do a lot of their own baking. They don’t appreciate or think of buying things. They make their own. (To another student concern…)… People are becoming more and more aware of…there are a lot of artificial ingredients and that is not a good thing. They are very aware that making a thing from scratch is better. It’s more of a mass produced thing than a hand produced thing (referring to the monk’s fruitcake). It has a lot of preservatives and artificial ingredients. (Our students are) a group that is very aware of this kind of thing.

For the monks who are selling the fruit cakes through the mail, someone may take it to someone at Christmas so it will last much longer. The richness of the cake is good, and the alcohol preserves it…that gives it a consistency of product that guarantees it when shipped. The students are hyper-aware of that preservative business as compared to the general population.

We have many people of different persuasions, and one bread is hallah. We have four students who are Jewish. We don’t think of the cake as religious, but part of the celebration. There is not a symbolism of the cake.

The English cake is Simnel at Easter and there are many different cakes associated with Easter. But they have many Pagan origins, and the eggs have something to do with fertility.

There are marzipan balls on top that represent the 11 disciples.

They are actually a co-op thing of the Pagan thing. I see a lot more connections here of a religious kind. The Christmas connection is more holiday brand, because it was made from dried fruit and nothing else was available at that time. The other cake we made on Friday was a Stollen, and somebody told me it is supposed to look like the Baby Jesus swaddled. It comes from Germany.

They had a good time and we had a lot of fun. They put a lot of effort into it. They now have knowledge they can use as a critical tool. (Tasting on a critical basis is a good lesson for students, apparently.)

Monastery Chapel
 This writer notes that The Los Angeles Times ran a story (local Front Page) on Immaculate Heart Hermitage Fruitcake, which can be ordered here. Mike Anton writes in December, 2010, referring to declining sales of the fruitcake:

But stiff competition from other monasteries and the outsourcing of baking to a company near Monterey eight years ago have cut annual cake sales to about 5,000 a year from 9,000 a decade ago.

“People bought it because it was made by us — all by hand. When they read on the package that it was made at a bakery, a lot of them probably said ‘let’s go find another monastery where they do make it themselves,”’ said Father Zacchaeus. “We were afraid our equipment was going to fall apart, and we didn’t have the manpower anymore.”

The power of The Los Angeles Times article was so great that as a result of its appearance, within a day the monastery literally ran out of fruitcakes for the year and can offer no more, though date nut remain available.

The owner of Tante Marie, Mary Risley, tells this writer that another good dessert for Christmas is the following recipe created by her for the season. Mary says, “This morning I am making cranberry red wine tart to publish on my website

I publish recipes every month in a newsletter. One can sign up for the newsletter on the website, no charge.” The recipe is this:

This is an absolutely delicious holiday dessert that could also be made into individual tarts. Happy eating!

Tante Marie's cookbook
by Mary Risley


Jamie Oliver’s Red Wine and Cranberry Tart


Tart Ingredients
3/4 lb. sweet pastry
1 1/2 cups red wine
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise
1 vanilla pod, split
4 cloves
juice and grated zest of 1 orange
1 lb. fresh cranberries
1 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cups red currant jelly
2 Tbs. butter
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 Tbs. pine nuts (or almonds)


Roll out the pastry to about 3/8 inch thick and line a 9-inch tart tin with removable bottom with the dough. Prick the bottom with a fork and chill for 20 minutes. Bake blind (which means to line it with parchment and fill it with beans) for 20 minutes in a preheated 425 degree oven, remove the beans and bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and chill before filling.

Roll out pastry
Pour the wine into a saucepan and add the cinnamon stick, star anise, vanilla pod, cloves, and orange juice and zest. Bring this mixture to the boil and then simmer gently for 15 minutes to infuse. Remove the spices; add the cranberries and 1 cup of the sugar. Stir in the red currant jelly and bring back to the boil; then leave to simmer on a low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thick and the cranberries have burst. Let cool.

While the cranberry filling is cooking, make the crumble topping. Cut the butter into the flour in a bowl until it resembles fine breadcrumbs; then fold in remaining brown sugar, cinnamon, and pine nuts.

To assemble, pour the cranberry filling into the tart shell and sprinkle over the crumble topping. Return the tart to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes until golden and crisp on the sides. Let cool on a rack. Serve with crème fraiche, ice cream, or lightly sweetened whipped cream on the side.

Serves: 12

Copyright © Mary S. Risley

Recipe adapted from

Tante Marie’s Sweet Pastry


1 2/3 cups pastry or all-purpose flour
2 Tbs. sugar
9 Tbs. butter, chilled
pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
3/4 Tbs. cold water


In a large bowl, put the flour, sugar, butter, and salt. Using a pastry blender, two knives or a fork, work the butter and flour until it has the texture of oatmeal. Make a well in the center of this mixture, and pour in the egg yolk, beaten with the water. Mix with a fork, then use your hands to press the dough into a ball. Knead the dough for a few seconds to distribute the fat evenly, then re-form into a ball. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes. It will keep for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator, or several weeks in the freezer.

When ready to use, put on a board that is lightly floured and roll out to slightly larger than the size desired. Roll back onto a rolling pin, slide over pan, push down in corners, cut off excess dough, crimp edges, and refrigerate until ready to use. Makes 3/4 lb.

Copyright © Mary S. Risley

This article appeared originally in Church of England Newspaper, London.

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