This article first appeared in the Roseburg News-Review in October 2007
Yes, the Christmas holidays are still a long way off. And yes, I always get annoyed when I see advertising this early for Christmas items (can't the commercials wait until November, at least?).
But there is one part of Christmas that absolutely must be planned for long in advance. Unlike Christmas shopping or sending Christmas cards, which can be postponed until late December, this one can't wait.
I'm talking about baking the traditional Christmas fruitcake.
Right: a 2-year-old fruitcake, ready to serve
Almost everyone has a strong opinion about fruitcake. Many people class fruitcake with broccoli or sauerkraut or fried liver, and make nasty jokes about it. But for many others, it is as much a traditional part of the holidays as the tree, the holly and Santa Claus.
Almost any recipe for fruitcake includes the notation, "This recipe has been in our family for generations." And often the recipe is called "Best fruitcake ever."
Many cultures have a rich, fruit-filled cake that is baked only on special holidays. The Germans have their "Stollen," the Italians their Christmas "pannetone." In Russia it's "kulich," the Czechs make "vanochka," to name only a few. Some are breads, with a yeast base; others are cakes. Some have lots of candied fruits, raisins and nuts, others not so much.
I grew up in a family with an English background. English fruitcake is usually dark, heavy, almost solid with many-colored candied fruits, and flavored with brandy or rum. Since my family was also tee-total (having liquor in the house was a sin), we never had authentic fruitcake, and Mother almost never made it.
But as an adult I learned to love good fruitcake that had been soaked in liquor, wrapped in cheesecloth, and aged for at least six weeks. And that's the way we make it now.
A couple of months ago we finished the last remaining slices of the 2005 fruitcake, as moist and flavorful as one could imagine. When October approached I mixed up a batch so that it will have time to age before Santa arrives. Since my family did not have a "best" or traditional recipe, I use a recipe that was traditional in someone else's family.
The only problem with making Christmas fruitcake in September or October is that usually the candied cherries (colored bright green and red) are not yet available. I solved that problem by buying them last December, when all the stores have them, and keeping them in storage for this year.
The bulk foods sections of large grocery stores usually have year-round supplies of candied or dried pineapple, mangoes, papayas, apricots and other colorful fruits, as well as the traditional dates, raisins and nuts.
Fruitcake bakes in a very slow oven for at least two hours, and usually with a pan of hot water to keep it from drying out. I bake five medium-sized loaves at a time, mixed in the biggest bowl in the kitchen. As the loaves cool on racks, they get a baptism of brandy, dribbled slowly on each side.
When cool they are wrapped in pieces of muslin that have been soaked in brandy. Most recipes call for cheesecloth, but I have found muslin to be easier. And muslin is also re-usable.
Then they are wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at the back of the refrigerator to age. Every week or so I check the muslin to make sure it is still damp, and pour on more brandy if needed.
In our family, fruitcake has become a special treat for any time during the year. On any special occasion — or even for no special reason at all other than wanting to have a nice treat — we get out the fruitcake, unwrap it, and cut a few very thin slices. With a nice glass of good port wine, it makes for a delicious dessert.
I sometimes have a scoop of vanilla ice cream with it, but my wife considers that to be a form of blasphemy.
If you're a lover of good fruitcake, October's the time to bake!
FRUITCAKE RECIPESHere are several fruitcake recipes that we have tried over the years. The main differences are the proportions of fruit to cake and the types of fruit and liquid recommended. The mixing and baking is pretty much the same for all, and appears below.
AUNT ANNIE'S FRUITCAKE
This recipe is from Nadine Paterson of Roseburg and was published several years ago in the News-Review.
Makes about ten cups batter
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter
5 large eggs
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 oz lemon extract
1/2 oz vanilla extract
1 1/2 lbs pecan halves
1 lb candied pineapple
1 lb candied cherries
FAMOUS WESSON FRUITCAKE
Note: I have reduced the original amounts of salt and cinnamon.
Makes about 12 cups batter
OLD-FASHIONED DARK FRUITCAKE1 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
3 cups flour
1 cup thinly sliced citron
1 1/2 cup (1 lb) whole candied cherries
1 cup (4 oz) chopped candied pineapple
1 cup chopped figs (or dates)
1 cup seedless raisins
3 cups (8 oz) coarsely chopped nuts
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cloves
1 cup orange juice
Makes about 16 cups batter
Dice all dried fruit. If it is hard, soften it by soaking for a while in hot water, and drain.4 1/2 cups (1 1/2 lbs) seedless raisins
4 1/2 cups (1 1/2 lbs) sliced pitted dates or prunes
4 cups (1 lb) coarsely chopped nuts
1 1/2 lbs mixed candied fruit
1/3 cup honey or molasses
1/2 cup sherry or fruit juice
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks, 3/4 lb) butter or margarine
2 cups brown sugar, packed
3 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt (or less)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg
1 bottle of brandy, rum, bourbon or other liquor, about 750 mll for the larger recipes.
Toss all the fruit and nuts in a little of the flour to coat so that the fruit does not stick together.
Cream the butter or margarine and sugar until fluffy. (If using the vegetable oil, beat the oil, eggs and sugar for two minutes.)
Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.
Sift together all the remaining dry ingredients.
Combine everything alternately in a very large bowl, mixing well.
Grease enough baking containers for the amount of batter, and paper the bottoms with wax paper or brown paper, and grease that.
Capacities of common loaf-type pans:Fill the pans almost to the top.3 x 5 x 9 in. regular bread-loaf pan = 6 cupsIf you do not have enough pans, you can also use coffee cans or other cans.
2 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. smaller loaf pan = 3 cups
2 x 3 x 5 1/2 in. miniature loaf pan = 2 cups
9 in. diameter tube cake pan = 10 cups
Bake in a 275 degree oven with a pan of hot water on the bottom shelf.
Baking time will vary, depending on the size of the cakes. Larger cakes will take two hours or more, smaller ones will be done in an hour. Test for doneness by inserting a skewer or toothpick into the center; if it comes out clean, with no moist dough, the cake is done.
Cool the cakes in the pan for half an hour, then turn out onto racks and remove the bottom paper. While still warm, drizzle them thoroughly on all sides with brandy, rum, bourbon, or other liquor of choice.
When completely cooled, wrap each loaf in a piece of clean muslin moistened with the liquor, wrap tightly in plastic or in a zipper-locking plastic bag, and store in the refrigerator. Check every ten days or so to make sure the muslin is still moist; if not, re-moisten it with liquor. (Many recipes recommend aluminum foil for wrapping, but that does not keep the cakes moist, and with several unwrappings to check the moisture, the foil develops holes.) If kept properly moistened the cakes will be good for several years. If kept moistened with liquor, refrigeration is not necessary; just keep in a cool, dark place. Let them age at least six weeks before serving.
Many people like to decorate the loaves, especially if they are giving them as gifts. For example, arranging blanched almonds on the tops just before baking is a nice decoration. Colored cherries in a pattern are also pretty.
If you want the cakes glazed, glaze just before cutting and serving. A simple glaze is 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 tablespoon corn syrup, and 2 tablespoons water, boiled for two minutes, then brushed over the cake.