Some of these cakes are doused in brandy for months before they are ready, and can last years! I don’t require mine to last years, or even months; it’s not a souvenir, it’s a holiday treat and I want people to eat it now!
My Aunt Elda had a lovely fruitcake recipe handed down in the family. But you had to remember to start it six weeks before Christmas, and you had to fuss with it for weeks before gifting it. My mom and I made this together a couple of times, and it was an amazing process, but one that you had to babysit during the busiest time of year. My take on this recipe is complete in less than a week, and the process still holds much of the charm.
My experiment this year was to perfect a gluten- and nut-free version so that everyone in the family can enjoy. It was completely successful! Because not everyone is nut-free, I filled the pans with the nut-free version first and baked them off before adding nuts to the rest so everyone can be happy. Quite frankly, there is little difference between the gluten-free fruitcake and the original recipe.
Husband: “I like it, it doesn’t taste like fruitcake!”
Teenagers: “Oh it’s good. There’s rum in this, right?”
No more jokes please!
I’ll not apologize for the fact that I actually like a little fruitcake now and then. Not the dried out years-old mass-produced specimens you often see floating aimlessly through the Universe without a home, but a moist and flavorful cake with an aroma that says “holiday” – ah, but not too much holiday.
Of course, there are a great many people who detest fruitcake, make jokes about it, give it away to people they don’t like, leave it until NEXT Christmas to regift, so all this work and expense could mean a cake that sits on the shelf until it is old enough to actually deserve some of those jokes. I believe this is where part of the bad rap comes from – hoarding and not actually eating the cake until it is inedible. This applies across the board to any factory made cake, packaged in a pretty tin, and probably saved in a back room from year to year. If your boss gave you one of these for your bonus, perhaps you should rethink your employment.
Know what to keep, and what to jettison
The first thing I did was ditch the inedible green-and-red candied citron bombs which I believe also contributes negatively to the reputation.
I had to fiddle with this recipe a lot! Reading over the slim directions on my aunt’s card (many of the old recipes from my family don’t contain any directions at all, just a list of ingredients, so I was lucky with this one as it had a whole paragraph of instructions) I was glad I made it with my mother previously since she had a memory of making this fruitcake with her sister.
The traditional fruitcake is made with nuts and dried candied fruits, which, along with the brandy, give it the flavor and appearance we recognize as “fruitcake.” These cakes usually have another thing in common – rubbery, tough, green-and-red candied citron bombs suspended in the dry cake. The first thing I did was ditch this inedible ingredient, which also contributes negatively to the reputation.
Traditionally, a fruitcake is doused in brandy for up to two months before it is ready, and can last years I’m told! It’s not a souvenir! I don’t require mine to last years, I want people to actually eat them!
Use whatever your favorite dried fruit
The original recipe called for 1 lb. currants, 1 lb. raisins, and “dried fruits and nuts to taste.” When Mom and I made this, we added an additional 4 cups of various fruits and it was perfect ratio of fruit and nuts to cake. She said there should be only enough cake to hold the fruit together, and since she liked the little red and green citrons, we put some of them in; I do not, so I’ve eliminated them altogether here.
The actual mx of fruits and nuts is entirely up to you, and you certainly don’t need to use this many, just have about six cups total of whatever you like. I also use some jarred Bing cherries I found at Stonewall Kitchens (Bada Bing) that add a softer fruit element to the cake. A cherry, apricot, and almond fruitcake would be delightful!
The original recipe called for Crisco, and I substituted butter. Rather than 2 cups of brown sugar, I used one of brown and one of white. Aunt Elda’s was really dark and heavy in flavor so I eliminated the molasses, and added 1 cup of applesauce in its place, which helped to keep the cake moist. I also took out some of the heavier spices, omitting the teaspoon of cloves and nutmeg because I wanted this cake to be more about the fruits with spices that didn’t overwhelm, especially those cloves.
But, let’s not do away with the coffee
I kept the coffee in the recipe, but changed its form by using 1 cup of apricot juice and a tsp. of instant espresso rather than the full cup of strong coffee. I added a vanilla bean and some fresh ginger as well.
Although this is a lot of ingredients, the assembly of the cake is no more time-consuming than any other cake, you just need to soak the fruit overnight (Aunt Elda soaked it for a week). The next day, assembly and baking is pretty fast.
Aunt Elda baked the cakes at 250 degrees for two to three hours! I’d probably forget they were in the oven and go somewhere if I baked them that long, so I increased the heat to 300 degrees and cooked them for 1 to 1/2 hours depending on the size of cake.
A comforting ritual that slows us down during the holiday season
The ritual of swaddling the cakes in cloth and dousing with brandy for a month is not necessary at all to make a lovely cake. I still use cheesecloth to swaddle them, and I douse them once a day for a few days, but beyond that, they are ready to gift and enjoy. If you keep giving them a little nip once a week for a full month, they would be outstanding, but I just don’t think they would be that much better.
The last batch I made, I kept the cakes on the cooling rack all afternoon, brushed them liberally with brandy once an hour or so, total of about four times, and packaged them up to give away, (saving one test loaf). Although they probably won’t keep as long (not a bad thing) these turned out well too, so this whole thing can easily be a weekend project.
Carrying on tradition
Yes, there are other treats I can, and do, make. But there is something about the whole process of creating the fruitcake that ties me to the women who came before me in my family, a way to remember, and a way to slow down for a while during a hectic week and just let my mind wander while I go about the tasks.
I made a lot of changes, but it is still Aunt Elda’s fruitcake, and I feel I am carrying on the family tradition, while making a little stab now and then at redemption of the fruitcake’s reputation!
Aunt Elda’s Christmas Coffee Fruitcake Renewed
Use whatever combination of fruit you like, but try to use at least three. You need six cups total. This is what I used this time around, in part because I had both figs and dates left over from another recipe!
For the fruit, a mix of six cups of your choice such as:
1 1/3 cups dried apricots, chopped
1 1/3 cup jarred Bing cherries, chopped
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup golden raisins
2/3 cup dried figs, chopped
2/3 cup prunes, chopped
½ cup crystalized ginger, finely chopped
2” knob fresh ginger, finely grated
Zest of one large orange
Zest of two large lemons
1 plump vanilla bean, sliced open
Brandy or Grand Marnier, or mixture of both, along with juice from the citrus
For the cake:
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted, or gluten-free baking mix
2 tsp. double acting baking powder, non-aluminum
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. espresso powder
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 cup apricot or pineapple juice
2 cups hazelnuts, pecans or favorite nut, optional
First, get your dried fruit ready. Chop apricots, cherries, prunes, and candied ginger. Chop the figs also, but remove the little hard stem from the top of each first. Drain the cherries and chop them into about six pieces, reserving the liquid.
Place all the dried fruit in a large bowl, along with the fresh ginger, orange and lemon zest. Split the vanilla bean open, scrape the seeds out and add to the bowl along with the vanilla pod. Pour two to three cups of either brandy or Grand Marnier over the lot, the amount depends on the depth of the bowl. You don’t need to use an expensive brandy here!
Let this sit overnight or longer, covered with plastic wrap. After 24 hours, they have pretty much absorbed as much of the spirits as they will.
This will make a Bundt and a four mini loaves, several standard loaves, or a whole lot of mini loaves for giving away. A 6”-deep cake is a perfect size for an event.
Prepare your pans: Butter the pans, flour them, and line the bottoms with parchment or waxed paper. Aunt Elda’s recipe called for lining with brown paper.
Preheat your oven to a low 275 degrees convection, 300 degrees standard, and position your rack in the middle.
Sift together dry ingredients: the flour, baking powder, espresso powder, salt, and allspice and set aside.
Cream the butter and sugars, then add the vanilla. Add your eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each one. It makes a difference!
Add the flour and juice alternately in several batches beginning and ending with the flour. Once the flour is in the mixture, combine gently so you do not develop the gluten.
Drain the fruits, but keep the liquid. This is gold, and will be used later.
Fill your pans to about ¾ full, level out the top, and tap them to release any air bubbles.
Bake cakes for about an hour 15 to 30 minutes for large size, and check at 55 minutes for the smaller ones. The gluten-free will take just a tad longer. A toothpick should come out clean, the cakes will be golden brown and firm to the touch. They will also smell really good.
While still a little warm, remove from the pan, then pierce gently with a skewer, liberally brush on some of the reserved fruit-infused spirits. Let cool completely, then brush with more of the spirits on all sides.
Wrap in cheesecloth or lint-free towels and wrap in parchment paper, and for the next two or three days, open up and brush again with the brandy (yes, it is alright to miss a day). Or, you can brush them several times in one afternoon and call it a day. However, the cake should be at least four or five days old before you attempt to cut it or it will probably fall apart.
Remove the cheesecloth, wrap in parchment and again in plastic wrap, refrigerate or freeze. To ready them to give as gifts, place in a tin, or tie with a ribbon or perhaps a pretty piece of raffia.
For a party, glaze with a little confectioners sugar thinned with cherry syrup or a spirit (featured image), and decorate with dried or fresh fruits or nuts. Or, just leave plain!
Tree-Fruit- and Tree-Nut-Free Fruitcake – Use dried cranberries, candied orange peel, golden raisins, and candied ginger, and forget about the nuts altogether unless you can eat pine-nuts or pumpkin seeds.
© Copyright 2018 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read