For most people, a fruitcake is an over-sweetened store-bought concoction, dry and dreadful, something to be thrown away as soon as the gift-giving friend has stepped off the front porch or quickly recycled to an unsuspecting colleague.
But this is not how I feel about my mother’s fruitcake, a dense mixture of dried fruits and nuts, spiced and infused with brandy.
The taste invokes memories of snowy holidays in a tiny mountain cabin, massive icicles hanging from the eves, the warmth of a fire on cold feet, and a full stomach.
My mother is the cook in our family (although my father has offered sweet inspiration in the form of Dobosh torte, Linzer torte, and croissant) from his European heritage. Our family celebrates both the Jewish and Christian traditions, which makes for pretty good holiday eating: Christollen, Challah, latkes, Buche de Noel, and, of course, fruitcake.
My mother usually begins the fruitcake the weekend after Thanksgiving. It takes some planning to assemble the 6 kinds of dried fruit, the 3 kinds of nuts and the parchment needed for the pans. You also need a small mountain of molasses, butter, and eggs.
This year I decide to make the fruitcake myself because we have an abundance of figs and apricots harvested from our trees last summer that we dried in the sun and stored. We also have certified organic walnuts from our friend and neighbor, Paul, and some locally grown almonds.
I first prepare the almonds by blanching them in hot water. I used to love to do this as a child and figured it would be fast. But when you have 3 cups to blanch, you better have a technique. Mine was to aim the almonds, pointed end forward, directly into the Cuisinart and squeeze. Most of the time, the white almond hits its target. I add in the other nuts, turned on the machine and in a few seconds the chopping is done.
The fruit, though, is another matter. When your Cuisinart is 20-years old, the fruit gets stuck in the not-too-sharp blade and the operation halts. I solve this problem but chopping in very small batches. Still this takes about 30 minutes. I know now what I want for Christmas. The chopped fruit is mixed with Brandy and left to imbibe.
I break up the baking day by attending to my other chores. The weather forecast predicts an end to our clear sunny days. We may even have snow for the first time in 9 years. For this reason (and because we got rid of our dryer long ago), all the laundry must be done and hung out to dry before the rain comes.
We live on a small farm in the California Central Valley and this time of year there is a lot of fruit to be harvested and then either eaten, given away or dried. This year we are drying persimmons, and these must be brought in, too. The children have picked mandarins and now want to sell them to passers-by. So I help them make a sign and watch them as they make sales. They make $4 in 30 minutes. Not a bad business for a couple 8 year-olds.
I return to the kitchen where I cream the butter, sugar, molasses and eggs. I add in the salt and flour and then mix together the entire concoction- brandied fruit, nuts and the butter/molasses mixture. Dark and sweet with many hues, the batter is delicious. My daughter’s friend thinks so too. I bake the cakes for 1.5 hours. When removed from the oven, the small cakes are dark and rough textured.
Friends stop by and nibble. C says “I don’t usually like fruitcake, but this one…”.
Prepare 15 small (3×6 inch) bread pans by lining with parchment paper.
Chop and mix:
3 cups (1 lb) currants
2 cups (1 lb) pitted dates
3 cups (1 lb) dried figs
5 cups raisins
1 c dried cranberries
3 cups (1 lb dried apricots)
3 cups (1 lb) dried peaches or apples
Add and mix:
4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cloves
Add 1 c. Brandy
soak 3 hours or overnight at root temperature
Chop and add:
3 c blanched almonds
2 c pecans
1 c walnuts
1/2 c blackberry jam
In a separate bowl cream together:
1 lb unsweetened butter
2 cups (1 lb brown sugar)
1 cup molasses
When creamy, add
When thoroughly mixed, stir in:
4 cups unbleached white pastry flour
2 tsp salt
Pour the butter/sugar mixture over the fruit.nut mixture. Stir well.
Fill prepared pans almost full. Trim edges of parchment paper with scissors so that they don’t burn while baking.
Bake 275 degrees F for 1- 1.5 hours.
Remove from oven and parchment. Cool on racks. Sprinkle with brandy while still warm.
When cool, wrap in old, clean sheets and store in a cooler in a cool room or garage for 2-4 weeks. Every 1-2 days, unwrap and sprinkle with more brandy.
When ready to serve, frost with freshly-made hard sauce. Decorate with three walnut halves and maybe a dried cranberry or two.
Cream 1 cube (1/2 c) sweet butter with 2 cups powdered sugar. When creamy, add in 2-3 TB brandy.