Saturday, December 1, 2012
How to make a great fruit cake
I used to think that all fruit cakes pretty much, well, sucked.
Then my friend Tom turned me around. Eight or ten holiday seasons ago he showed up at my place with a specimen he had baked an entire year earlier. This fruit cake was wrapped so tightly, and in so many layers of different materials, that it took us several minutes just to unwrap and have a look at the thing.
What I remember most is the smell. Tom's was one boozy baked good, all right. Not only was there bourbon in the recipe he'd used, but every few weeks the guy would strip the cake down to its cheesecloth skivvies, drizzle more whiskey over it, rewrap and then return the cake to its assigned resting place inside the fridge. That's a lot of drizzling that went on over the year.
Tom's fruit cake was like none I had ever tasted. The thing weighed a ton, yeah, but it was also incredibly moist and satisfying. Best of all, the flavors were spectacular, owing much to my friend's prominent use of figs and prunes and nuts and other good things he'd taken from the cupboard and tossed in.
It's gotten so that Tom really cannot afford to show his mug around here during the holidays without a fruit cake stuffed into his backpack. Not if he wants a place to sleep, he can't.
This year his fruit cake may have company, because a couple weeks back I decided to get hold of Tom's recipe and give it a try myself. The foundation comes from a recipe provided by King Arthur Flour, which I've reprinted in full below. However, like my friend, I messed with it some.
Here you've got 1 1/2 pounds of mixed fruit. There's a variety of candied fruit and orange peel, plus dried figs, prunes and apricots.
Then there's a 1-pound mixture of golden and purple raisins.
The nuts (walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts) weighed in at 1 1/2 pounds.
The fruit, raisins and nuts get combined with 4 cups of all-purpose flour, and then you add to that a mixture of butter, sugar, eggs and brandy or rum (I went with Jack Daniel's).
Stir it all together so that the ingredients are well combined (at this point I decided to add a little more Jack, though I'm not sure why).
Then get yourself some buttered-and-floured cake pans and fill them with the mix. (Note: the recipe claims to make one 10-inch cake, but that's not even close to being true. The blue pan at the top is a deep 10-incher, and I got another couple of smaller cakes out of the batch.)
Once the cakes are out of the oven let them cool for 15 minutes. Then drizzle some more liquor on top and allow them to cool thoroughly.
I decided to take my friend's lead and age these cakes, at least for a few months. Wrap them in cheesecloth, then moisten the cloth with whatever liquor you like (I stuck with the Jack Daniel's all the way). Add a layer of plastic wrap, then aluminum foil, and then toss into a Ziploc-type bag. Store in the fridge and occasionally take the cakes out and pour a little liquor over the cheesecloth, just to keep things nice and moist.
Tom is promising to have a two-year-old fruit cake in his backpack when he arrives for his annual weeklong visit in a few weeks. By that time my cakes will be around six weeks old, and so maybe we'll break into one of them and do a side-by-side comparison.
There are worse experiments to participate in, you know.
King Arthur's Light Old Fashioned Fruit Cake
From "The Baking Sheet Newsletter"
4 cups (17 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 pounds pecan halves (I used a mixture of pecans, walnuts and hazelnuts)
1 1/2 pounds whole candied cherries (I didn't use any cherries. Instead I went with a mix of candied fruit and orange peel, and dried figs, prunes, and apricots)
1 pound golden or purple raisins (I mixed the two together)
1 cup (2 sticks, 8 ounces) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups (15 3/4 ounces) sugar (I only used 1 3/4 cups)
6 large eggs
1/4 cup (2 ounces) brandy or rum (I used 1/2 cup of Jack Daniel's)
Preheat your oven to a 275°F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan, two 9 x 5-inch bread pans, four 1-pound coffee cans (the wide, short kind) or 8 small bread pans. (They're insane. I got three cakes out of this recipe; Tom says he usually does too.)
In a very large mixing bowl, mix together the flour, salt, and spices. Add the nuts and fruit, mixing until they are well coated.
In a second bowl, cream the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating the mixture thoroughly after each addition. Stir in the brandy or rum.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry and mix only until they are well combined. Fill whichever pan you use 2/3 full and bake for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on the size of your pans. (My two smaller cakes took an hour to cook; the larger one, an hour and forty minutes.)
After you remove the cakes from the oven, let them cool in their pans for 15 minutes. After this rest, remove the cake from its pan and immediately sprinkle brandy or rum over them; then let them cool completely. Wrap in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil. Store in a cool place to let the flavors mellow and mature. You can sprinkle a few drops of brandy or rum over them every few days during the storage period if you wish. The alcohol evaporates and leaves only flavor.
These fruit cakes will last for months if you can keep them that long. They taste so good, they are hard to give away, but they do make wonderful gifts.
To serve, cut the cake in very thin slices. It is very rich and will go a long way.