In the weeks leading up to the Christmas holiday, trips to my grandmother’s house became more frequent for my mother and me. In usual childlike fashion, as my mother and grandmother chatted about the upcoming holidays or whatever this or that cousin got themselves into recently, I would venture to the fridge in search of snacks.
At this time of year, among my grandmother’s numerous expired condiments and leftovers in various stages of mummification (the Great Depression mentality was real here, y’all,) a strange dark pink concoction of various fruits and juices would appear in a large, reused pickle jar on the top shelf of her refrigerator. I remember asking my grandmother once what this gross jar contained and was met with a short answer before she returned to a conversation with my mother: “It’s the fruit for my 30-Day Cake.”
As a child (who did not really understand fermentation at the time), I often stared at the jar and was both disgusted that she planned to make a cake out of fruit that had been sitting around for a month and intrigued that it looked like something out of a mad scientist’s lab.
A 30-Day Cake, also often referred to as a Friendship Cake due to friends sharing a “starter” made from the leftover juices of a previous cake, is similar in design to the most hated (or beloved?) of Christmas desserts: the fruitcake. However, unlike the dense, brick-like fruitcake, the 30-Day Cake is usually placed in a Bundt pan instead of a loaf pan and, once baked, results in a light and airy crumb with soft pieces of sweet fruits spread throughout and just a hint of whiskey or brandy.
While this cake became one of my grandmother’s most requested desserts for our annual Christmas gathering, my aversion to it continued well into my teen years. It was not until my late teens, and after a lot of my own mental gaslighting, that I finally tasted the dessert. To my abject horror, I actually enjoyed it. Many years have now gone by without this strange dessert—years that have seen both my mother and grandmother pass away and the annual Christmas dinner our family once shared, gathered in my grandmother’s cramped kitchen, fade to nothing more than a distant memory and strained relationships.
Though I can no longer return to her house or take in the sweet smells emanating from her kitchen that I came to associate with her and the holidays, I can still hold the memories we shared as a family close as I look toward the future and begin to create new holiday traditions with my own family.
I hope that through writing this article and the associated hunt for my grandmother’s original recipe for the 30-Day Cake—her recipe box was divided among my cousins when she passed—that these conversations and rehashing of holiday stories may be the first steps at repairing the bonds and traditions we once shared. In fact, the cake could evolve from a symbol of our past to one of our future. All we need is a shared starter, a bunch of seemingly disconnected parts, and some time to come together to make something rich and deliciously strange.
Anna J. Mullican’s 30-Day Cake
Author’s notes: The text in italics did not make it onto the original written recipe. I have added these instructions and the recipe to make a starter for clarity and completion.
If you are starting this cake from scratch without a gifted starter, the whole process will take fifty days from start to finish.
- 1 20-ounce can pineapple chunks, drained
- 1 16-ounce can apricots, drained
- 1 16-ounce can sliced peaches, drained and cut into chunks
- 1 10-ounce jar maraschino cherries, drained
- 1 1/4 cups whiskey or brandy
- 1 1/2 cups white sugar
Combine all ingredients in a large glass jar and stir. Cover jar with a loose-fitting lid (do not tighten or jar WILL explode over the process) and let stand at room temperature for three full weeks. Stir mixture 2–3 times a week over the 20-day process.
Drain the fruit and reserve the liquid—this is your starter. Pour the liquid into a sterile pint-sized jar and seal.
Keep a jar for yourself and share the others with friends. You can also use the leftover fruit as a dessert topping or over ice cream.
- 1 pint cake starter – add more whiskey or brandy for flavor if desired
- 1 16-ounce can of peaches with liquid (do not drain)
- 1 20-ounce can of pineapple bits with liquid (do not drain)
- 2 10-ounce jars of maraschino cherries (drained and cut in half)
- 6 cups white sugar – divided to be added on different days
- 8 eggs, beaten
- 1 1/3 cups vegetable oil
- 2 boxes any yellow cake mix
- 2 small boxes instant vanilla pudding
- 2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts
- 2 cups shredded coconut
- 2 small boxes raisins
- 2 jars cream cheese frosting (or, if ambitious, make your own)
From Day 1 to Day 30, the following steps need to be followed in order. The juice MUST be stirred every day.
Day 1: Pour starter, peaches (cut up), and 2 cups sugar into a large glass jar. Cover with towel and seal with a rubber band. The lid can be placed on the jar and over the towel, but VERY loosely.
Day 10: Add pineapples and 2 cups sugar. Stir.
Day 20: Add cherries and 2 cups sugar. Stir.
Day 30: Time to bake! But first, drain all liquid from fruit mixture and place it into sterilized pint jars to give away to friends/family. Should get 3–4 jars.
In a large bowl, take eggs and oil and mix well. Then add cake mixes and pudding mixes. Stir. Once mixed thoroughly, add in the nuts, coconut, and the raisins—stir.
Divide mixture into 2 Bundt pans (greased and floured).
Bake at 325 degrees F for 45 minutes for small pans or 60 minutes for large pans.
Remove from oven and let fully cool. The cake should be golden brown.
Once cool, add cream cheese frosting.
M. Quaid Adams is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage focusing on a digital collections project for the 2023 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Ozarks program. He is also a PhD student in rhetoric and composition and an MA student in folklore at Indiana University Bloomington.
All photos of the cake, its recipe and development process, and of my grandmother were taken and given to me for this project by my cousin, Veronica Saylor.