Christmas is practically right around the corner–(you may not want to think so, since Thanksgiving isn’t even here yet) but our household starts gearing up for Christmas by September, and we are half-way through the month as I write this. (I have updated my giftlist and some gifts are already stashed in a closet–no small feat considering how crowded our closets already are.)
I have begun to stock up on dried fruit–and there are so many more to choose from these days; pineapple and mango and cherries and ginger–many ingredients which will make a fantastic fruitcake, even if you think you don’t really like fruitcake. (Actually, we have the last slices of a fruitcake aging in the car port refrigerator that is about 6 years old. Some of it gets eaten every year and then I douse it with a little more brandy, rewrap it and put it back into the frig). The fruitcake is sacred and my household knows it. One year long ago, I had made a fantastic fruitcake laden with dozens of pecans and walnuts and Brazil nuts. I had it aging in the frig in a Tupperware container. After taking my sons to Ohio for a vacation that summer, upon returning home I discovered we had a new laundry room frig. “Where,” I asked my husband, “Is my fruitcake?”
“Oh,” he said, dismissively, “I didn’t know what it was and threw it out”. Needless to say, no one ever threw out anything without my knowledge after that.
Cookbook author Edna Lewis recalled Christmas in Freetown, writing, “When I was a girl growing up in a small farming community of Freetown, Virginia, preparations for Christmas started in early September, when we children went out to gather black walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazelnuts….Whenever she saw a break of a day or two from the September harvest, Mother would set about making the fruitcake. It was a family affair that my older sister and I cheerfully participated in….” I know I get my pecans and walnuts from a supermarket, but in my heart I am gathering black walnuts and hickory nuts somewhere. (Actually, for the past couple of years, our walnuts have come from my penpal Bev, in Oregon, who has gifted us with a big box of unshelled walnuts for several Christmasses now).
One of the best stories you will ever read about fruitcake making can be found in a little book by Marie Rudisill, about her nephew Truman Capote and a Southern cousin, Sook Faulk. When Truman was a young child, he and his elderly cousin Sook would go pecan collecting in preparation for making fruitcakes, which Sook sent to many different people, including a few U.S. presidents (FDR was one).
And another author, Moira Hodgson, compiled a small cookbook titled “Favorite Fruitcakes”, subtitled ‘Recipes, Legends, and lore from the World’s Best Cooks and Eaters”. Hodson’s collection is gleaned from many famous cookbook authors, including James Beard (his mother’s black fruitcake) and Julia Child’s Famous Sticky Fruitcake. There is also Marion Cunningham’s Chocolate Fruitcake and Edna Lewis’ Christmas Fruitcake.
Here’s the thing about fruitcake – it has gotten a lot of bad press, some directly traceable to author Calvin Trillin, who claimed there is just one fruitcake in the world that has never been eaten, just passed around from family to family. Don’t you believe it. Anyone who dislikes fruitcake has just never eaten really good fruitcake (it reminds me of growing up hating rice. Rice to me was a sticky white ball that tasted faintly of library paste. That was how my mother cooked it. After I became an adult and moved to California – I discovered rice – wild rice and rice pilaf and yes, even Rice-A-Roni…and what I learned was – I didn’t hate rice. I just hated the way my mother cooked it). So, trust me on this. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of really excellent recipes for making good fruitcake. (I know because I became obsessed with fruitcake recipes one year and began putting all I could find in a blank recipe book. Quite a lot of them are from newspapers and magazines.
Well, I have been going through cookbooks and recipe files, trying to decide what kind of fruit cake to make this year. There were a lot to choose from. A fruitcake with chocolate in it? With pecans and walnuts? With or without citron? (preferably without) And whose recipe should I choose? James Beard’s mother’s black fruitcake? Rose Levy Beranbaum’s less fruity fruitcake? Jeff Smith’s Lighter Applesauce fruitcake? How about Bourbon Fruitcake? Martha Washington’s Fruitcake? White Fruitcake from the White House cookbook?
As you can imagine, this fruitcake making can be serious business. Deciding which recipe to follow is just the first step. Finally, I chose a recipe called Holiday Fruitcake which originally appeared in the October 25, 1990 Los Angeles Times food section.
I also had all of the right ingredients on hand to make Holiday Fruitcake. (This is always a step in the right direction—I grew up in a household where I had free reign in the kitchen, allowed to cook or bake anything I wanted—the only criteria being, all of the ingredients had to be available in the pantry. I never, as a child, asked my mother to buy a special ingredient for my cookie baking binges, nor did we ever make special forays to the corner grocery store for special items).
One sunny afternoon, I put Bob to work shelling pecans and chopping almonds. He also chopped dried apricots and dates. Meanwhile, I was greasing loaf pans, creaming butter and sugars and making sure no one had tapped into the bottle of Grand Marnier. (Other than myself, of course). It took the largest bowl in the house to get it all mixed and we took turns trying to stir the big wooden spoon in this…muck of fruit and nuts. As we stirred, I explained that taking a turn at stirring the fruitcake is good luck, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.
Eventually the lumpy batter all ended up in four loaf pans – and I hovered cautiously over the kitchen stove, throughout the baking process.
When the cakes were finally baked, removed from the pans and cooling on racks, we congratulated ourselves and celebrated with … maybe just a teeny little bit of Grand Marnier.
When the cakes were completely cold, they were wrapped in cheese cloth and then Reynold’s Wrap, placed in Tupperware containers and stored in the refrigerator.
In December, we will re-wrap them in cellophane and give them only to very special people. (Translation: people who actually do like fruitcake).
I’d like to share with you the recipe for Holiday Fruitcake as it appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 1990. (If you have a favorite fruitcake recipe, I hope you will share it with me!)
1 pound dried apricots, chopped
1 pound dates, chopped
1 pound golden raisins
1 pound red and green candied cherries
1 pound red and green candied pineapple
1 pound almonds, blanched, toasted and chopped
1 pound pecans, broken into pieces
4 cups flour
1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups brown sugar, packed
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup rum
¼ cup brandy
Juice and zest of 2 oranges
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
Thoroughly grease 4 (8×5”) loaf pans. Combine apricots, dates, raisins, candied cherries and pineapple, almonds and pecans in large bowl. Mix in 1 cup flour to dredge mixture. Set aside.
Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating after each addition.
Sift remaining flour with cloves, cinnamon, mace, baking soda and salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with rum, brandy, ¼ cup Grand Marnier, and fruit juices and zests. Fold into fruit-nut mixture. Pour into loaf pans. Bake at 300 degrees 2 ½ to 3 hours or until wood pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pans 15 minutes. Remove from pans onto wire rack and let cool to room temperature. Moisten 4 pieces cheesecloth, large enough to cover each loaf, with Grand Marnier, and wrap around each loaf. Wrap Grand Marnier-soaked loaves in foil and refrigerate or store in cool place note: aging improves fruitcake.
In December, we will re-wrap them in cellophane and give them only to very special people. (Translation: people who actually do like fruitcake). It may surprise you to know, there is such a thing as really good fruitcake. And with all the different kinds of dried fruits available nowadays, you can make a fruitcake to suit the taste of your own family. If there is an ingredient in a fruitcake recipe that doesn’t turn you on, substitute an equal amount of another dried fruit you do like.
I was talking about making fruitcake and a girlfriend who works full time (I am now retired) complained “I don’t have time to do all of that work!”
so I am going to share with you one more fruitcake recipe; I made this for years while I was a full time administrative assistant raising four sons. And this fruitcake was a huge hit with everyone who tasted it:
4 ½ cups chopped pecans
3 ½ cups chopped walnuts
2 pounds dates, c hopped
1 pound candied cherries, cut up
1 pound candied pineapple, cut up
2 (14 ounce) cans of sweetened condensed milk (NOT evaporated)
8 ounces of shredded coconut
Combine pecans, walnuts, dates, cherries (reserve a few whole cherries for decoration),pineapple, condensed milk and coconut. Mix with your hands . Turn into greased and floured miniature loaf pans. Bake at 225 degrees about an hour. Cake is done when no milk oozes out when pressed with fingers). Decorate with reserved cherries, if desired. Let cool or chill in pan for easier pan removal. Turn out on foil and wrap snugly. Store in refrigerator about 1 month before serving (or giving away as Christmas presents. Those decorative cellophane bags are really nice to wrap these in. Voila! You will have 6 or 8 small loaf pans of fruitcake. (or bake the whole thing in a tube pan that has been greased and floured and bake 1 ½ hours). This is a nice fruitcake but doesn’t have the aging power that fruitcakes doused with brandy or rum do).
I did a Google search before finishing this post; I was hoping to find a Texas fruitcake that I thought was especially good – it’s not the one offered by Collins, probably the most famous Texas fruitcake you can order online today. I think the one I had in mind must have gone out of business–they sold small fruitcake bites dipped in chocolate I think they called “puds” – oh, yum!