|"Harold" (actor Patrick McKenna) from The Red Green Show|
Do you know what I dislike about Christmas even more than fruitcake? (Shudder...)
Nothing! I hate fruitcake!
Well, if you're referring to that nasty horrible stuff made with technicolor candied fruit like they sell in the grocery stores, I'd have to agree with Harold here. It's vile stuff.
But fruitcake can be a wonderful thing if you're willing to jettison the prepackaged, preservative-laden, artificially colored and flavored glop that most recipes call for. I ought to know; I've been making my own version of fruitcake for over 30 years now. I just took this year's batch out of the oven, in fact!
Making fruitcake is my annual "first Saturday of November" tradition. It's the first volley across the bow of holiday preparations in our house, and even with the kids gone and baking thus drastically reduced, I cling to this one practice, at least. And so, on the Friday night before November's first Saturday, you can find me in my kitchen, weighing out and slicing up dried fruit.
My own recipe calls for 3 pounds of fruit. (Roughly. I tend to go overboard.) This year my mixture is made up of dried cherries, jumbo raisins, dried apricots, and dates. Sometimes I add currants, prunes, dried cranberries and blueberries, or even dried apple bits. It depends on what I have on hand or what I feel like experimenting with that particular year. I NEVER use candied fruit. Yeccchhh.
The next step is (to my mind) crucial: I drench the fruit mixture with brandy, stir, cover, and let it sit overnight:
The next day I commence the actual baking. There are pans to grease and line with parchment paper, eggs to separate, (real) butter to cream with sugar and egg yolks, the flour and spices to blend, nuts to chop, and egg whites to whip stiff. It's a good time to put on some classical music to enjoy.
Once all the components are ready, it's time for the fun of mixing.
First, the egg whites and the butter mixture have to be folded together. I love my handy-dandy blending whisk I bought from the King Arthur Flour baking catalog! I use it so much I bought one for my daughter and for each of my daughters-in-law when they got married. No kitchen should be without one!
Then the nuts and flour/spice mixture is mixed with the dried brandied fruit and stirred well to coat:
And then, the fruit/flour mixture is folded into the egg/butter mixture, and packed into the pans.
I do mean packed, too. Fruitcake batter is heavy and dense and, what's more, it doesn't rise much. So I fill the pans fairly close to the rim. This year I had enough for one of my super long loaf pans (another treasure from King Arthur Flour) with enough left over for a miniature loaf. If you're wondering why I have the parchment paper sticking up over the edges, it's to make it easy to lift the cake from the pan when baking is over.
With the oven at 250 degrees, I put these on the center rack, and on the rack beneath them, I placed a shallow pan with about an inch of boiling water in it. (This helps keep the crust moist.) Then I went about my business for a few hours and took a nap...
...woke up in slight panic because I remembered the fruitcakes baking unattended...
...dashed to kitchen and opened the oven door to discover the small cake done to perfection and the large one not far behind!
|Testing with a toothpick... It should come out clean, not sticky with batter.|
I gave the larger cake an additional half hour and it came out beautifully, too. That's the beauty of the low oven temperature; it's wonderfully flexible and forgiving. It's pretty hard to burn your cakes!
Here they are, cooling. (The large cake is upside-down.) They smell wonderful! I'm dying to eat a slice, but here's where the holiday anticipation comes in--they have to mellow for a few weeks before eating. When they're completely cool, I'll brush them with more brandy, wrap them tightly, and store them in the refrigerator. (The refrigerator isn't traditional, but I figure it's safer.) We'll slice into the first one on Thanksgiving!
The slices are tart, tangy, chewy, and actually pretty healthy! My middle son is particularly fond of this cake and I'll be sending him home with a good-sized chunk for his birthday which comes up later this month. My husband and I will enjoy the rest throughout the Christmas season and on into January.
Every year I tinker a bit with the basic recipe--sometimes using honey, or adding grated orange peel, or changing the flavorings or type of nuts. (This year my experiment was to add some boiled cider to the dried fruit and brandy. That's yet the third plug for the King Arthur Flour Baker's Catalog in this post!) I have a handful of slips of paper stored alongside the original recipe with notes from each year's successes, tips, and warnings of what to avoid next time. It's sort of a time capsule.
I enjoy the continuity of this baking tradition. I began it as a newlywed out of curiosity, spent many happy occasions as time went on with my kids helping, and now it's just me again, but every year, it's a familiar touchstone. "The cheerful ritual of holiday baking" is how one of my favorite authors put it (Miss Read, from her short story Village Christmas), and I think that sums it up well. I love tradition; I love the holidays; I love reacquainting myself every year with seasonal activities that bring back a string of special memories from the past.
There are, of course, hundreds of fruitcake recipes available if you'd like to try baking one yourself, but in case you're interested, here's mine:
The night before prepare your fruit:
3 lbs. mixed snipped dried fruit of your choice
about 1 cup brandy to cover
With electric mixer, cream together:
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
6 egg yolks
(optional: 1/2 tsp. vanilla)
Stir together flour, spices, and nuts:
2 1/2 cups flour (I used a combination of whole wheat and white)
2 cups roughly chopped walnuts or pecans
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. each of ground cloves, nutmeg, and allspice
In a large bowl, whip egg whites until stiff.
Gently fold in the butter/sugar mixture.
Now add the fruit/brandy mixture (do not drain) to the flour/spice/nuts mixture and stir to coat. Then, gently but thoroughly fold this into the egg/butter/sugar mixture. Pack into greased, parchment lined pans. You should have enough for one very large or two medium sized cakes.
Place on center rack of preheated 250 degree oven to which you have added a shallow pan of boiling water on the lowest rack. Bake 3-4 hours or until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from pans, cool, brush with brandy, and store for 3 weeks or more in a cool spot or the refrigerator before serving.
Note: There is no baking powder or baking soda in this recipe.