I jumped at the chance to write the Fruit Cake blog.  First, this job came with a challenge:  convince Eva that fruit cake is something to savour, not avoid at all costs.  Second, I love a well made fruit cake and I just couldn’t understand why it was so undeservedly maligned.  My Christmas wish this year is to create a fruitcake that Eva and my family will enjoy as much as I do.  And, I hope that if you count yourself among those misguided fruitcake haters of the world that after reading this blog you will be inspired to give it a second chance.   

 In my experience fruit cake is a perfect union of cake and candy.  The batter is rich, dark and perfumed with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice.  The cake is stuffed full of sweet dates and raisins, with savoury walnuts, punctuated with candied orange and lemon zest and dotted with bright red and green cherries.  What’s not to like?  Tragically, I have learned “what’s not to like” in the last few years.  I am now prepared to state that if your only experience with fruit cake is store bought that your criticism is well deserved.  What is passed as fruitcake by many major supermarkets is dry, pasty and flavourless.  Store bought fruitcake is a culinary travesty. 

 Until a few years ago the only fruit cake I had ever eaten was homemade and for the most part made by my aunt, grandmother or mother.  It was easy to remain ignorant of lesser versions since fruitcake so rarely appears on the holiday dessert table these days.  The women in my family all use the same recipe; a recipe handed down in my Uncle Basil’s family, a recipe designed to be baked in the oven of a wood stove, a recipe designed to satisfy a large family and several more friends.  The ingredients are simple, a representation of the dried fruits, nuts and spices available in the Maritimes in the early 20th century.  I follow the recipe to the letter with the exception of adding brandy to the batter and to store the cakes wrapped in brandy soaked cheese cloth.  Otherwise, the recipe is perfect as written.

Into the Oven

 I have to admit I have not made my own fruit cake is several years.  Unfortunately, my husband, kids and mother-in-law all hate raisins. That leaves just me and my father-in-law to devour the much anticipated annual fare of plum pudding, mince tarts and fruit cake.   Since my family fruit cake recipe makes a massive six kilogram batch and there are typically only two people eating it, I have exercised restraint and foregone the fruit cake in favour of a few tarts and plum pudding on Christmas day.  But, I have a renewed my devotion to the only serious Christmas baking I will do this year.  I don’t even buy Christmas presents until the week before the big day, so baking cake two months in advance is a huge commitment for me.  But I’ve really missed fruit cake and I think I’m ready to commit. 

 Fortunately, fruitcake is easy to make.  Besides the lengthy baking time the only time consuming job is chopping the fruit and nuts.  If you want to flavour the cake with brandy, and who wouldn’t, it will add an extra couple of hours to the prep time.  That said, your patients will be rewarded. 

 The recipe:

 The Green Family Christmas Cake

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 cup lard, melted

1 cup molasses

1 ½ cups strawberries

2 cups buttermilk

2 tsp baking soda dissolved in buttermilk

7 cups flour

2 tsp cinnamon

2 tsp ground cloves

2 tsp nutmeg

2 tsp allspice

2 tsp salt

2 tsp vanilla

 2 lbs raisins

1 lb dates

1 lb candied cherries

2 lbs nuts

¼ lbs citron (optional)

½ cup brandy

 Soak fruit in brandy and leave for at least two hours or overnight, stirring occasionally.Dredge fruit in ¼ cup of the flour.

Sift together remaining dry ingredients.  Mix together wet ingredients.  Combine as standard cake batter.  Add fruit. Pour into 6 parchment lined loaf pans, about 1 kg of batter per pan.

 Bake a 325o for 1 ¼ hours to 1 ½ hours.  A toothpick will come out dry when cooked.

Cool on wire racks. When cake are cooled, remove parchment.  Wrap loaves in brandy soaked cheese cloth.  Wrap in fresh parchment.  Wrap in aluminum foil. 

Store cake in cool dark space for at least 6 weeks.  Can also be frozen if you don’t have a suitable storage space.

The cakes will improve with ripening but can be enjoyed fresh as well.

 Now to the challenge:  Could I build a cake to satisfy the raisin haters and Eva?  I made a half batch of the recipe as an experiment.  For my husband I tinkered with the batter a smidge, reducing the cloves to just a quarter teaspoon.  For Eva, I eliminated the radio active green and red cherries.  For the rest, I replaced the raisins and dates with apricots and cranberries, fruits that I know they like.  To create a prettier slice, I used pistachios instead of walnuts.  I kept the candied peel and upped the orange quotient with a little marmalade in the batter.  

 So, what did they have to say?

 DELLA:          Tell me honestly what you think.  I’m going to use your comments in my blog. 

GEORGE:      You’re going to quote me? Now I have to think about what I’ll say.

DELLA:          Don’t worry. I’ll embellish to make you look smart.

GEORGE:      The apricots are the most prominent flavour… and it’s not too clovey which you know I don’t like.

DELLA:          If it was on the dessert table, would you have a second slice?

GEORGE:      Yes, I would.  I like it.  So what does real fruitcake taste like?

DELLA:          Open it up and taste…

GEORGE:      Watch this, I’ll like it better. Ha ha ha… I still get more cinnamon than clove… I actually like it better.  It has more flavour. 

GEORGE:      Ouch… don’t hit me. Ha ha ha. The fake cake needs more nuts.

DELLA:          It has the same quantity of nuts as the traditional cake.

GEORGE:      Tell your Aunt Lynn it’s the first fruitcake I’ve ever had that I like.

                                                                                               

 MONIQUE:    (Carefully inspects the cake before taking a bite, looking very sceptical.  She takes a bite and begins to nod.)  It’s good.  I think of it as more of a loaf though.  You could have this for breakfast. There’s too much fruit for it to be dessert.

DELLA:          Would you have a second piece?

MONIQUE:    Yes.  I like it.

DELLA:          Now try the traditional cake.

MONIQUE:    (Looking even more sceptical and for a place to discreetly dispose of the offending morsel.  She reluctantly takes a bite and begins to nod again.)  It’s alright.  I don’t like raisins but they go well with the spices so you don’t really notice them.  The cherries look a little suspect.

DELLA:          Would you have a second piece?

MONIQUE:    Probably.

                                                                                                                                 

EVA:               I like it.  It’s not cloying like what I’ve had before.

DELLA:          Now try the real cake.

EVA:               (Takes a bite and makes a face.)  It’s not bad but I don’t like it. 

DELLA:          What’s the flavour you don’t like, because the cake is essentially the same. Do you like date squares?

EVA:               Not really.  They’re too sweet.  But I like the one with apricots.

DELLA:          Would you have a second piece?

EVA:               A small piece of the apricot cake with coffee, I might have a second piece, yah, I probably would… I’d politely finish the real cake if my aunt Matilda made it. 

The “Fake” Cake

2 eggs

1 cups sugar

1/2 cup lard, melted

1/2 cup molasses

1/2 cups strawberries

1/4 cup marmalade

1 cups buttermilk

1 tsp baking soda dissolved in buttermilk

3 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground cloves

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

2 lbs dried apricots, chopped

2 lbs dried cranberries

1 lb pistachios

1/4 lbs candied orange peel

1/4 cup brandy

 Soak fruit in brandy and leave for at least two hours or overnight, stirring occasionally. Dredge fruit in ¼ cup of the flour.

Sift together remaining dry ingredients.  Mix together wet ingredients.  Combine as standard cake batter.

Add fruit. Pour into 3 parchment lined loaf pans, about 1 kg of batter per pan.

 Bake a 325o for 1 ¼ hours to 1 ½ hours.  A toothpick will come out dry when cooked.

Cool on wire racks. When cake are cooled, remove parchment.  Wrap loaves in brandy soaked cheese cloth.  Wrap in parchment.  Wrap in aluminum foil. 

Store cake in cool dark space for at least 6 weeks.  Can also be frozen if you don’t have a suitable storage space.

The cakes will improve with ripening but can be enjoyed fresh as well.

 I now count George among the converted.  Never again will he deride my beloved Christmas staple.  Monique and Eva have also received enlightenment, though not quite to the same degree. Monique says she will eat my homemade Christmas “Loaf” and will try it when she sees it elsewhere.  Eva now agrees that the  issue is the fruit you put in the cake, not the concept.  Where will YOU be counted?

And when I say “YOU” I mean you B! No one said they hated it… in fact they all LIKED it… radio active green and red cherries and all!  George the raisin hater likes it better than the fake cake… Eva says she’d have a second piece of the apricot imposter. So B, are you really ready for a throw down?  How about next time when you have a chance?

And as with most Truly Good things, whipped cream is entirely gratuitous, but a slice of a nice sharp cheese is fantastic.

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