I've never been able to understand why Christmas fruitcake is hated so much. What makes it such a dreaded gift, one that gets passed about or relegated to the back of the fridge? I must say I'm not the biggest fan of the cake, some are rather good, but others are just too dense and way too boozey. But this year for Christmas, I was willing to make a better fruitcake. So when a friend suggested I try making the cake from a recipe she loved just to see if I could possibly love it, I decided to give it a wholehearted try. I usually love other cakes that contain dried fruit, so what could be so bad about fruitcakes? And if they turned out better than expected, I'd have something more traditional to hand out as gifts to my fiends and neighbors.
First, I set myself some ground rules: I would under no circumstances use bright technicolor candied fruit, but instead use naturally dried fruits. And I would not soak the cake in booze and age it for days as most recipes suggest; I would only soak the fruit in booze. I simply don't like a soggy cake and I don't intend to preserve it for years to come, which in the medieval past was the reason why these cakes were so laden with alcohol. I wanted a lighter cake that had the likeness of a good nut bread but with a holiday flair. And I believe I was able to achieve that and more.
I was surprised by the results. The cake was dense but had a nice texture. The dried fruit was very flavorful from my combination of rum, a traditional ingredient, and vermouth, a fortified wine flavored with herbs and spices. The many ground spices also contributed to a fragrance and flavor reminiscent of pumpkin pie. For a beautiful cross-sampling of colors, I used dried papaya, cranberries, pineapple, golden raisins, dark raisins, and dates. A bit of crystallized ginger added hot spiciness. The best part about making fruitcake is that the recipe is completely up to interpretation. Any dried fruits or nuts can be added. Any liquor will work fine for flavoring. The cake reflects the tastes of the baker, meaning it can be altered to your liking. Now, what's not to like about fruitcake?
Recipe adapted from Alton Brown's Free-Range Fruitcake.
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup chopped dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped dried papaya
1/2 cup chopped dried pineapple
1/2 cup chopped dried dates
1/4 cup chopped candied ginger
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon orange zest
1/2 cup gold rum
1/2 cup sweet vermouth
3/4 cup sugar
10 tablespoons (1-1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter four small (6-by-3-1/2-by-2-1/4-inch) loaf pans and dust with flour.
Combine dried fruits and zests with rum and vermouth in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat in the microwave for 5 minutes. Combine reconstituted fruits with sugar, butter, and spices in a saucepan set over medium-high heat. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring often to keep from scorching. Simmer until sugar and butter has melted. Let cool.
Sift together dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Add dry ingredients to fruit mixture and mix well to combine. Beat in eggs until thoroughly combined. Divide batter among prepared pans. Bake for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centers come out clean. Cool loaves in the pans for 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Yield: 4 small loaves.