My mother started making fruitcake a couple decades ago, and since then the original grainy photocopy has been marked over and crossed out numerous times, black pen scratched over blue pen scrawled over pencil. I love that I’ve been able to step in a bit later into the development, at the point where the process already carries the familiarity, expectations, and experience of a tradition.
Fruitcake is magical. It looks a bit mysterious already–dark, ambiguously and blockishly shaped, heavy with aromas once unwrapped. I remember unearthing a fruitcake just barely my junior (really!) a few years ago, which, once peeled out of the crystal-encrusted cheesecloth was dry, musty, but (amazingly and unfortunately) somehow passable and might be considered edible. We sawed off a few slivers to sample before tossing it–though after reading this story, while they do have quite a head start on us, we really should have kept it!
Fruitcake is a bit of a project, for the most part, simply due to the mass of ingredients–a dozen eggs, a pound of butter and four kilograms of dried fruit. This year my sister and I were recruited for the task, and with three of us the process really seemed to go so much faster!
Since we never got around to making the fruitcake until quite a bit later in the year than usual, the current batch is still not ready to try. While I can’t comment on this years fruitcake, I’ve compensated with the annual tasting of previous fruitcakes. My mother doesn’t use nuts, prolonging the lifespan of the fruitcakes without nut oils that are prone to go rancid. After that, it’s a matter of storage–in a cool place, perhaps refrigerated if you can, and the occasional hydration to keep them from drying out too much. We wrap them in paper, then some plastic and double bagged in snitched bakery bags.
2009 is the oldest that we still have. It’s held up well, but it is definitely a little bit dry (it was also the last year we used maraschino cherries).
2010 was a very, very strange year. Drier than even 2009 and with occasional hits of very hard and intense candied ginger.
2011 was a curious experiment; we used an “orchard medley” of dried fruits: spongy dried apples and pears that formed tough and chewy disks scattered throughout the cake. The cake itself looks quite a bit lighter in colour as a result, and has never seemed as rich and well-saturated as the rest.
2012 is just about everything you could want a fruitcake to be. Dark and moist and compacted into a dense receptacle for boozy dried fruits. It may be a slightly strange simile, but I’d compare it to a brownie or fudge–it has the same decadent heft.
When you compare the taste of a 2014 fruitcake to a 2012, my dad put it quite well: you can taste the individuals fruits in 2014 (a cake of fruits, we might call it), but in 2012 it just tastes like a fruitcake. It’s quite a transformation that takes place–it becomes much more than a cake, or not exactly a cake at all anymore, in any recognizable sense of the term. While we don’t have any 2013 for comparison, I’d suggest a three year aging period seems quite agreeable, and one year still a bit on the younger side.
Fruitcakes make good gifts, especially when you end up with 6 kg worth every year. I do hear that it goes over best when you give the current vintage (though apparently aged fruitcakes go for quite a bit).
I’m sharing this fruitcake at Natascha’s fruitcake challenge! It’s quite fun to see how different fruitcakes can be and the plethora of interpretations–I’ve seen a number show up in the reader over the past couple months, from light fruitcakes to rum-soaked dark fruitcakes.
Unfortunately, as I’ve said above, I can’t say how this years fruitcake has turned out, but hopefully you might be able to take something from the experience of previous years. Quite discouragingly, that seems to be something like don’t experiment! as I ended up regretting not only the crystallized ginger, but also the dried apples and pears… However, some things have definitely changed from one year to the next. The main aim is always to clear out whatever old dried fruit we have in the cupboard, and so the fruitcake has proved to be quite flexible in absorbing whatever we throw at it. We’ve gradually cut back from the currants and dates to make room for dried prunes and cherries, and this year I also increased the amount of spices. (Dear mum has also freely admitted the procedural details of the fruitcake could use a bit of work, such as changing what stage the egg whites are incorporated.)
Besides, the experiments and the failures and all the variability from one batch to the next is what endows each generation of fruitcake with unique character. The fruitcake can act a snapshot (an aging and changing snapshot) of what transpired the last fruitcake session. Without these experiments the fruitcake tasting wouldn’t be quite as fun or provoke the retrieval of quite as many memories.
Yields 6 x 1 kg fruitcakes.
fruit mixture — 4.4 kg total (the particulars don’t matter)
2 kg sultana raisins
160 g Thomson raisins
860 g dried currants
230 g dried cranberries
550 g candied mixed peel
200 g prunes, chopped
200 g dates, chopped
200 g dried cherries
4 c flour
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground allspice
4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
12 eggs, separated
1/2 c molasses
1 lb butter
1 c sugar
2 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 c brandy
1/2 c strong coffee
In a large pot, combine the fruit.
Whisk together all the dry ingredients for the cake. Add one cup to the fruit and mix until all the fruit is coated. Set aside.
Whip the egg whites until stiff and set aside.
Whisk the egg yolks with the molasses and set aside.
Combine the brandy and coffee and set aside.
Cream the butter with the sugar and vanilla in a very large bowl until light. Slowly add the egg yolk mixture, beating constantly.
Fold half the flour into the butter mixture. Stir in a spoonful of egg whites to lighten, then fold in the remaining egg whites. Follow with half the brandy-coffee mixture, then half of the remaining flour, the remaining brandy-coffee and finally the remaining flour.
Pour the fruit overtop and combine until just mixed. Equally portion out into 6 parchment lined loaf pans.
Bake 275 F for 2 hours or until an inserted skewer is removed clean. Let cool on a wire rack.
Douse each cake with 1-2 capfuls of rum or brandy. Wrap in paper, then plastic. Store in a cool place, hydrating every week or so, and it will be ready to eat in a couple months.
For long term storage, wrap the cake in several layers and seal it well in a bag. Keep in a cool place. Hydrate a few times in the weeks before you intend to eat some; otherwise it will keep quite nicely.
Image courtesy of Natascha’s Palace