Saturday, November 04, 2006

Nutty as a fruitcake

Now that Halloween is a whole four days in the past, I must turn my attention to Christmas. (Thanksgiving is a two-day affair, three tops, barely a blip on my holiday radar. I can handle Thanksgiving with my eyes closed and one arm tied behind my back.) Christmas, to me, is about three things: food, gifts, and decorations. And family, naturally. I guess that's four things, and of course I left the most important one out. But I remembered to list the second most important one first, and that's food.

My family doesn't have a lot of Christmas cooking traditions. Mom used to make a big turkey dinner every Christmas Eve until, as teenagers, we kids rebelled about eating nothing but turkey from Thanksgiving until the end of the year; after that, the menu changed, but Mom never settled on one meal. She would always make something nice, like prime rib or a pork roast, but nothing ever became "Christmas dinner." That uncertainty has stayed with all of us kids now that we're grown, and planning the holiday meal is part of the celebration every year. We always potluck it, with the host providing the entree and the guests bringing side dishes and dessert. Sean and I are hosting my family's get-together this year and I'm already starting to think about what to serve. We'll probably eat German on Christmas Eve with Sean's mom's family, and we usually go out to an Italian restaurant with his dad's family on the 26th, so I'll need to work around that. Right now I'm leaning towards grilling some steaks.

Although the holiday meal was up in the air, my family's baking traditions were firmly entrenched. Mom always baked pumpkin bread -- several batches, to last us from Thanksgiving to the New Year. (You can find her delicious recipe here.) She always made three kinds of cookies: chocolate chip, peanut butter, and what we just called "Christmas cookies." These last ones were thin, crisp cookies that seemed to be part of the butter cookie family; I don't know if Mom doubled the recipe or what, but at least a gross of cookies was produced each year, all of them Christmas cookie cutter-shaped and in need of decoration. We kids did the decorating with tinted frosting and colored sugar, and by the time we were halfway through the process we were grumpy and mixing up weird colors and slapping that frosting on any old way. Mom would keep the strange-looking cookies for us to eat and give most of the nice ones away as gifts. Those cookies would last for weeks in the cookie jar -- they didn't really taste that good, but they had amazing staying power. The other thing Mom made at least one batch of every year was fudge, and to this day fudge is the taste that reminds me most strongly of Christmas.

One thing Mom never made was fruitcake. She and my dad both liked fruitcake, and they instilled in me an appreciation for the good stuff (because, unbelievers, there truly is such a thing as good fruitcake), but it's kind of a hassle to make and no one but the three of us would be eating it anyway. Dad was a doctor, and sometimes a patient or one of his colleagues would give him a holiday gift basket with a mini fruitcake in it. (Those were usually kind of gross.) Sometimes my parents would buy a fruitcake from a bakery or a catalogue. (Those were usually much better.) When I went away to college my freshman year, Dad ordered a fruitcake for me that was delivered the week after Thanksgiving; I ate a little bit of it every day for two weeks until I got to go home for Christmas break -- nothing has ever made me so homesick as that fruitcake.

I have made two fruitcakes in my life. The first was when I was in college. I can't remember where I found the recipe, but I recall it saying the cake should be sliced very thin because then the candied fruit, when the slice was held up to the light, would look like stained glass. Why anybody would care about that now seems beyond me, but at the time that description was very appealing. I remember the cake had a ton of chopped dates in it; while I like dates baked into things, I really don't care for them by themselves, and I started to feel sort of nauseated while cutting them up. It was a decent fruitcake, but I didn't bother to save the recipe.

The other fruitcake I attempted to make turned into a big ol' mess, probably verging on a fiasco. Eight or nine years ago I decided to make the luscious-sounding black cake that Laurie Colwin describes in her book Home Cooking. (It's a Jamaican recipe, and the cake gets its color from burnt brown sugar.) I don't have a copy of the book in front of me, but I remember the directions as being vague, to say the least. For starters, after letting the chopped dried fruits and nuts soak in wine for a couple of weeks, I was instructed to mix them with the dry ingredients and form a batter. Well, the recipe made so much batter that it wouldn't fit in my largest mixing bowl and I had to shift operations to an enormous stockpot that I normally used for canning. Then I was told to pour the batter into a greased loaf pan. "A greased loaf pan"? How big a pan was she talking about? It looked like I had enough batter to fill four or five loaf pans. I ended up running out and buying a large disposable aluminum loaf pan that held about 2/3 of the dough. I baked and baked the thing, probably twice as long as the recipe recommended; it set nicely around the edges and began to brown appetizingly, but the center remained stubbornly liquid-ish. I was incredibly frustrated and began to cry and threw the fruitcake out, though not before eating some of the baked portion, which was lovely. As a more experienced cook, I now could probably figure out how to make the recipe work, but its memory is forever tainted for me and I don't think I'll be trying it again anytime soon.

But I have been thinking about fruitcake lately. Right now is the time of year for baking one, because its flavor will improve as it ages. (Soaking it in liquor also improves its flavor, unbelievers.) There's a recipe from Martha Stewart that I've been itching to try forever, and I think I'll make it sometime this week; it's supposedly the recipe that Martha herself uses every year. You can find the recipe on her website, but it's a little different from the way it originally appeared in her magazine and the picture there is quite unappealing. Here's the recipe I'm going to be following:

(makes two 9-inch cakes or loaves)

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 tbsp allspice
2 cups sugar
12 large eggs
6 lbs candied fruits and fresh nuts, such as citron, apricots, walnuts, and pecans
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup apricot jam
1/3 cup brandy
Whole dried apricots
Pecan halves

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Brush pans with butter. Line with parchment paper; brush with butter, and dust with flour, tapping out excess. Set aside. In another bowl, sift together the flour and allspice; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl at least twice. Stir in the fruits, nuts, and molasses; blend well.

Add the flour mixture to the batter, 1 cup at a time, until well mixed.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pans. Set the pans in a shallow pan filled with 1 1/2 to 2 inches of hot water. Bake until set, and a cake tester inserted into the middle of each cake comes out clean, 3 to 3 1/2 hours. Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cool completely.

Remove the cakes from the pans; discard the parchment paper. Strain the apricot jam; place in a small saucepan. Add the brandy to the pan, and heat over low heat until the mixture is warm through and syrupy. Glaze the fruitcake with the mixture. Garnish with dried apricots and pecan halves; glaze again. Let the glaze harden before wrapping the fruitcake in parchment paper. Wrap in plastic or keep in an airtight container; store in a cool, dark, dry place for several weeks.

If you are a fellow fruitcake lover, you may enjoy this.

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