Thursday, December 9, 2010

Free Range Fruitcake

I am a big fan of Alton Brown, who hosts the show Good Eats on the Food Network. He's like if Bill Nye the Science Guy had a cooking show. A few years ago I saw the episode It's a Wonderful Cake and decided I had to try his fruitcake recipe, even though I had never had fruitcake before, and of course had heard all the jokes about how disgusting and inedible fruitcake is.

Fruitcake is an ancient confection, originally a way to preserve fruit and nuts over the winter. It's supposed to symbolize wealth and luck and abundance with all those rich ingredients. I wondered how anyone could not like something that's basically dried fruit and nuts glued together in a matrix of sugar, spices, and alcohol, so I went ahead and gave it a try, and it was delicious! I've made it every year since. Yule is just not the same without it.

This year my boyfriend (now fiancee) got me Alton's baking cookbook, I'm Just Here for More Food, and in it I found what he claimed to be an improved recipe for the fruitcake from the show. It has a few minor changes, like using some whole wheat flour, hard apple cider instead of apple juice, no currants, and some black pepper in the spice mixture. I decided this year I'd base my fruitcake off the book recipe instead of the show's (which you can find on the Food Network site).

However, I don't always follow the recipe exactly anyway. It's actually a very forgiving recipe, and I vary which fruits, nuts, and booze I use depending on what I have around and what I can find at the store. I just keep the same total amounts and it turns out fine.

One important thing is this cake takes a couple of days to make and is best when cured for about a month, two weeks at the very least, so you have to plan ahead. After it's baked, you let it sit in a closed container and room temperature and baste it with more booze every few days. This greatly improves its flavor, texture, and potency!

I usually make mine some time in November, but this year I was a little late and made it the first week of December. That should still give it enough time.

The first step is to soak your dried fruit, citrus zest, and candied ginger in a cup of rum overnight. Here's mine after they have soaked and are very plumped up and happy. This year I used dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries, figs, peaches, and cantaloupe. I hope that's not too weird a combination. The figs were left over from another recipe that I wanted to use up. The peaches and cantaloupe were dried from this year's harvest. I was a little worried about using cantaloupe since it has such a distinctive flavor, but I have all this dried cantaloupe that I have no idea what to do with, so I went ahead and used half a cup of it. With so many other flavors going on, I doubt anyone will be able to tell there's cantaloupe in this. Then I added the cranberries, cherries, and blueberries to make the total amount of fruit the three and a half cups called for in the original recipe.

It also calls for the zest of one orange and one lemon, but instead I used the zest from the three Meyer lemons I harvested from my potted tree this winter. I don't get a lot of lemons from my little potted tree, but the ones I do get sure are good. Meyer lemons are a hybrid of a lemon and orange, so I figured they'd work as a substitute for orange and lemon zest.
Then you cook the fruit with the sugar, butter, and apple cider to make sort of a compote, and then this has to cool to room temperature. At this point you can even stash it in the fridge overnight.
The cooled cooked fruit mixture is then blended with the eggs, dry ingredients and nuts (I've used pecans and walnuts in this recipe before and either one's good), and mixed up like any other muffin or quick bread.
I have found this to be a very sticky recipe where you really need to grease and flour that pan well and probably add a bit of parchment or wax paper too, so you won't end up having to cut the cake out of the pan with a knife (as I admit I've done before). I've always made this in a loaf pan, but Alton said on the show you can use a round cake pan. I keep meaning to try that and then keep forgetting.
Of course since I was planning on blogging this, I had to mess up somehow. This time I set the oven too high and burnt it a little, or at least the outside got a lot darker than it should.

I panicked a little but then tore off a corner to inspect it, and it didn't seem too bad. Besides the over-brown outside, the inside seemed a bit dry, but that's nothing a few weeks soaking in brandy won't fix!

This cake is actually pretty forgiving. I've had other "disasters" in the past, including baking it at too low a temperature (due to a faulty oven), so I had to put it back in the oven and cook it longer (after de-panning it, then noticing the bottom was still gooey, then re-panning it!), and then once I put it in my smaller loaf pan and it overflowed, but I kept the part that stayed in the pan. Each time I still ended up with a decent fruitcake after the cure, so I've concluded that it's really hard to actually ruin this recipe.

Once the cake is cooled, I usually poke holes through it with a wooden skewer to help the booze soak in better, and then baste it with either rum or brandy. Alton uses a spray bottle to spritz it on, which sounds to me like it would better than basting, if I had a spray bottle I felt was clean enough for culinary use. I keep my cake in a plastic cake holder with an airtight snapping lid and check it every three days or so to see if it can handle some more booze.

I'm really not sure why people hate fruitcake so much. Granted, this is the only fruitcake I've ever eaten, but it's become a Yule tradition for me. Maybe it's because other fruitcakes use these gross, candied fruits instead of dried fruits. Or maybe Daniel is right, and people aren't expecting the dense, heavy texture when they want "cake". You may have noticed that this cake is a lot more like a banana bread or other quickbread than the light, fluffy cake most Americans think of when they think of cake. With all the fruit and nuts, you can even tell yourself it's healthy! I've been known to eat some for breakfast during Yuletide.

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