Let’s start with the fruit: the cloyingly sweet, brighter-than-life lumps of green, yellow and red that dare you to guess their identity.
Then, the booze, often so overpowering that it’s all you taste.
Inexplicably, the crumbly dryness. (Maybe that’s what the booze is for.)
Johnny Carson most often gets the blame for fruitcake’s image problem. He famously joked that there’s actually only one fruitcake in the world, which gets passed from household to household. Other comedians riffed on the idea. That was way back in the 1970s, but for Dale Parker, it still stings. He’s the vice president of the company that makes Claxton Fruit Cakes, in Claxton, Ga., where the city water tower reads “Fruitcake Capital of the World.”
“In the ’60s, it was different,” Parker says. “Fruitcake was respected. Then along came some of the comedians, passing jokes. Fruitcake got a bad rap.”
Then again, he adds, “A lot of the comedians who told those jokes, they’re gone now. And we’re still here.”
Even in those dark days of leisure suits and disco, my mother made fruitcakes; it was a project that began weeks before Christmas, heralded by the containers of candied fruit piling up on the kitchen counter. The cakes were doused in brandy, wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth, entombed in earthenware casks and periodically fed more brandy. The grateful recipients – at least they said they were – always raved about the level of alcohol: My, so much of it! I always wondered why they didn’t just pour a glass and save themselves the trouble of chewing all that candied fruit. I helped her make them, but I didn’t like them.
What I consider my fruitcake awakening happened years ago, when I clipped a recipe for Arkansas Fig Fruitcake from a newspaper and baked a few as Christmas presents. No chewy nuggets, no cheesy colors. Just dried fruit and nuts. The grateful recipients – at least they said they were – praised the rich, fruity flavor and the moistness achieved without so much as a drop of brandy. I made the cake for a few years, then forgot about it.
Until this year, when it was time to start thinking about holiday gift baking. The fig fruitcake came to mind, and I wondered whether I could find other worthy recipes that didn’t rely on sugar-injected fruit and buckets of booze.
It turns out I could.
Washington baker and cookbook author Lisa Yockelson captured my attention with her Luxury Cake, a tall, rich and gingery creation with a hint of rum. Southern-cooking doyenne Nathalie Dupree’s latest book features White Fruitcake, the recipe she credits for turning her into a fruitcake believer.
Some tips for bakers: Fruitcakes are not cheap to make, so it makes sense to buy the best ingredients. Start showing up at that fitness center you don’t go to anymore; mixing (and hefting) these cakes takes muscle. When baking, check your cake before the end of the prescribed time; you don’t want it to be dry. And if you absolutely must have a boozier cake, use brandy or rum (or whatever) for soaking the fruit, or as a substitute for other liquids in the recipe, or . . . well, I’m sure you can figure out a way.
And try these recipes. I’ve been giving samples to friends and colleagues, and it turns out they’re grateful to receive fruitcakes like these - at least they said they were.
Yield: 20 servings
For the cake
3 cups mixed dried fruits (such as apricots, figs, pitted dates, apples, peaches, nectarines, plums and such), finely chopped
1 cup golden seedless raisins
1 cup dark seedless raisins
2/3 cup dark rum
2 1/2 cups unsifted bleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsifted bleached cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup best-quality ginger preserves
1 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups walnut halves or pieces
For the glaze and fruit finish (optional)
1 1/3 cups best-quality apricot jam
1 tablespoon water
Thinly sliced dried or glazed fruit
Make ahead: The optional glaze can be made up to 2 weeks in advance and refrigerated. Before using, scrape the chilled glaze into a small, heavy saucepan, bring it not quite to a boil over moderate heat and cook for 30 seconds, until thinned, then apply it to the cake.
For the cake: Combine the dried fruits and the raisins in a very large nonreactive mixing bowl. Add the rum, toss well to coat, and cover loosely with a sheet of plastic wrap. Let the mixture stand at cool room temperature for 4 hours (or up to 8 hours).
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
Spray the inside of a plain, one-piece 9 3/4-inch tube pan (6 inches deep, with a capacity of 18 cups) with nonstick flour-and-oil spray. Line the bottom of the pan with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit and film its surface with the spray. (It is essential to line the bottom of the pan.)
For the batter, sift the flours together with the baking powder, salt, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice onto a sheet of wax paper.
Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until lightened. Reduce the speed to medium and add the dark brown sugar in 3 additions, beating for 1 minute after each portion is added. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing for 30 seconds after each addition. Blend in the vanilla extract and ginger preserves. Reduce the speed to low and add the sifted mixture in 3 additions. Use a flexible spatula to scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl thoroughly after each addition. Scrape the batter over the marinated fruit mixture, add the crystallized ginger and walnuts, and stir to thoroughly mix the fruits and nuts with the batter.
Spoon the batter into the prepared baking pan. Use a flexible spatula to smooth the top.
Bake for 2 1/2 hours or until a wooden pick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Begin checking the cake at 2 hours and 15 minutes. The baked cake will pull away slightly from the sides of the pan and the surface will be level.
Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Carefully invert the cake onto another cooling rack. Lift off the pan, remove the circle of parchment paper if it clings to the cake, and invert the cake to stand right side up. Cool completely. Store in an airtight cake keeper. An hour or two before serving is the ideal time to glaze the top of the cake and apply dried or glazed fruits to it, if you wish.
To make the optional glaze, combine the jam and water in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is barely bubbling. Cook for 2 minutes, adjusting the heat so it doesn’t come to a full boil, then remove it from the heat.
Turn the jam mixture into a stainless-steel strainer set over a heatproof nonreactive bowl, and use a flexible spatula to push it through. Discard the solids in the strainer.
To use the glaze immediately, heat it in a clean, dry saucepan over medium heat until the glaze is barely bubbling. Cook for 30 seconds. Or cool the glaze completely and refrigerate it in an airtight container.
Use a soft pastry brush to apply the warm glaze to the top of the cake. Wait a minute, then carefully arrange dried or glazed fruit on the surface in a pretty pattern.
NUTRITION Per serving: 540 calories, 6 g protein, 72 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 110 mg cholesterol, 190 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 47 g sugar
Source: Adapted from “Baking Style,” by Lisa Yockelson (Wiley, 2011).
Arkansas Fig Fruitcake
Yield: 20 servings
3 cups (about 14 ounces) dried figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 cups plus 6 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 cups water, plus more as needed
2 cups finely diced, peeled apple
One 15-ounce box raisins
2 cups pecans or black walnuts, in halves or pieces
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking soda
Make ahead: The fig mixture can be made up to 2 days in advance, covered and refrigerated. The fruitcake can be wrapped and stored for up to 2 weeks.
Combine the figs, 6 tablespoons of the sugar and 2 cups of the water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the figs are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the mixture rest for 10 minutes, then use an immersion (stick) blender on low speed to process the figs to a coarse puree, adding water as needed. Let cool. The yield is slightly more than 2 cups.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Use nonstick oil-and-flour spray to grease a 9 3/4-inch tube pan, preferably one with a removable bottom, or two standard loaf pans.
Measure 2 cups of the fig puree and transfer to a very large mixing bowl along with the apple, raisins and nuts. Stir to mix well.
Whisk together the flour, the remaining 2 cups of sugar, the cinnamon, cloves and salt in a separate large bowl until combined.
Combine the baking soda and the remaining 1/2 cup of water in a small bowl, stirring until the baking soda has dissolved. Stir this into the fruit mixture.
Add the dry ingredients to the fruit mixture and mix well. The batter will be extremely thick and heavy, so at this point it’s easiest to mix it with your hands. You might need to add a couple tablespoons of water to moisten all the ingredients.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan(s) and use a flexible spatula to smooth the top. Bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours or until a tester inserted near the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Cool for 30 minutes, then remove from the pan to cool completely. (If using a tube pan with a removable base, keep the cake on the base as it cools.) Wrap tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
NUTRITION Per serving: 380 calories, 5 g protein, 77 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 49 g sugar
Source: From Mother Linda’s, www.motherlindas.com.
Yield: 32 servings
2 1/2 cups golden raisins
1 cup dried apricots, cut into quarters (about 7 ounces)
1 cup chopped crystallized ginger
2 3/4 cups all-purpose or cake flour
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
2 cups chopped pecans, toasted and cooled (see NOTE)
Make ahead: The cakes can be tightly wrapped and stored at room temperature for 3 days or frozen for up to 4 months. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Spray two 4 1/2-by-8 1/2-inch loaf pans with nonstick oil-and-flour spray. Line with 2 pieces of parchment or wax paper, one cut to the width of the pan and the other to the length of the pan plus 4 inches of overhang to use as handles to lift the loaf from the pan.
Toss the raisins, apricots and ginger in 1/4 cup of flour until evenly coated.
Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces, add them to the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer and beat on low speed until soft, about 3 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 or 2 minutes, until the mixture looks like lightly whipped cream. Reduce the speed to low and add the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, gradually increasing the speed and beating until well whipped, 5 or 6 minutes. Combine the eggs and extracts in a small bowl, then add to the butter mixture in four additions, beating for 1 minute on medium-low speed after each addition. The mixture might look curdled, but all will be well.
Sift the remaining 2 1/2 cups of flour with the baking powder and salt onto a piece of wax paper. With the mixer on low speed, add half of the flour mixture to the batter, beat well, then add the remaining flour mixture and beat. Once the flour is incorporated, use a flexible spatula to fold in the grated zests, then the nuts and dried fruit. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Tap each pan once against the counter to remove any air bubbles, and smooth the tops.
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. (The cakes will be white and might give the appearance of being underbaked even though they are not.) Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Carefully run a knife around the inside of the pans to loosen the cakes. Use the parchment paper handles to remove the cakes from the pans and transfer them to the wire rack. Remove the parchment or wax paper and cool the cakes thoroughly.
NOTE: To toast pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and place in a 350-degree oven, shaking the sheet occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes. Watch carefully; nuts burn quickly.
NUTRITION Per serving: 230 calories, 3 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 17 g sugar
Source: Adapted from “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, 2012).
Brandied Cherry Chocolate Cake
Yield: 16 servings
6 ounces (about 1 1/3 cups) chopped bittersweet chocolate, chilled
6 ounces (1 1/2 cups) chopped almonds, chilled
2 ounces (about 6 1/2 tablespoons) flour
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 ounces (3/4 cup) sugar
4 large eggs, separated into yolks and whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
16 ounces drained brandied cherries (see headnote)
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick oil-and-flour spray and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.
Pulse the chocolate, almonds and flour in a food processor to grind them into a fine meal, being careful not to turn them into a paste.
Beat the butter and sugar together at high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer or held-held electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks, then the vanilla and almond extracts, and beat well to combine. Add the chocolate-nut mixture and beat until incorporated.
Beat the egg whites in the separate, clean bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer until they form soft peaks. Use a flexible spatula to fold them into the chocolate-sugar mixture.
Spread half of the batter in the prepared pan. Top with the brandied cherries, which should fit evenly in 1 layer. Spread the remaining batter over the cherries, using a flexible spatula to lightly level the top. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the cake is puffed and set. Cool it on a rack and turn it out of the pan. Dust the top generously with confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm or cool.
NUTRITION Ingredients are too varied for a meaningful analysis.
Source: Adapted from Peter Brett, pastry chef at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington.