Sunday, November 25, 2007

Holiday Noises Off

Of the early signs that Christmas would come, Dorothy's making of Fruit Cake was near the first. Dark, rich, moist, more fruit and nuts than cake, its complex flavors delight the palette and signify the joyous munificence that is supposed to be the hallmark of the season.

Dorothy's was all of that with a hint of spirits -- a cheap California brandy -- to preserve. Well, when I reached an age to be interested in such, I swore she used the same small flask of brandy year after year with the tide line barely budging. As a senior in High School I judged it time she got a new bottle. So, over a week or two, I and a pal or two diluted our orange juice with a dab that might have served Beau Brummel as cologne, but took some doing to finally evaporate the contents. What rips we thought ourselves! But I digress.

October, or early November. the aromatic loaves lay on the counter when I returned home from. Small, mahogany cakes, glistening with the baptismal alcohol, awaited their foil wrapping. Once wrapped they disappeared into a high closet shelf to mellow and age several weeks before taking the center of many a holiday sweet tray. Frequently it was arrayed in a white frosting that the unsuspecting might be forgiven for thinking was some sort of crême or fondant. One bite and the sweet tang of well brandied hard sauce disabused the unfortunate youngster who sampled a generous fingerful.

To judge by its name, I think Dorothy's recipe came from a woman's magazine of the thirties or forties. It has the sound of a publicist's best insinuation: Royal King Fruit Cake.

It's most salient feature was a modest admixture of black walnuts. These get harder to find as time regresses ever-relentless forwards providing us with more and more of less and less.

But the essence of fruit cake is the glacé fruit. This is a lengthy process of preserving fruit by replacing the moisture in fruit or peel with a sugar syrup. Traditionally this is strictly cane sugar and water transfused slowly over several days to preserve the texture of the original fruit. In US manufacture the process is sped by the admixture of corn syrup, dye, and the rest of the food chemist's bag of tricks. For more on the process see here. Dorothy's recipe calls for two pounds of glacéd fruit, plus a pound and a half, each, of currants and raisins. This, with a pound of coconut and a pound or two of nuts, is divided among eleven loaves and a modest round pudding basin.

It makes for wonderful seasonal gifts ... always assuming that you are the sort who likes mostly people with a fondness for fruit cake. If they blench on opening, you have encountered one of the majority with no stomach for the crittur. Curiously there is no middle ground. No one can "take it or leave it alone" like Mr Thurber's bear. Growing up with the stuff, I belong in the minority who have a notion of what is good. At least I do when it comes to fruit cake.

After I left home, whenever I thought there might be access to an oven, I would pester Dorothy for the recipe. She obliged every time. Once, at one odd juncture, I managed to organize, briefly, my recipes. All told I found a dozen copies in Dorothy's fist, either by pen or typewriter. It was among the very first recipes I digitized. A random sampling of copies from my current files:

Royal King Fruit Cake
11 Loaves
Dorothy made this every fall. So do I.
1/2 Lb Citron Peel1/2 Lb Lemon Peel
1/2 Lb Orange Peel1/2 Lb Fruit Mix, Your choice
1/2 Lb Coconut, Cut Fine24 Oz Currants
24 Oz Raisins, Seeded Muscats2 Cups Sugar, Brown
1/2 Lb Butter4 Eggs
1 Cup Molasses1/2 Cup Milk
4 Cups Flour, Bread1 Tsp Baking Soda
2 Tsp Cream Of Tartar1 Tsp Cinnamon
1 Tsp Nutmeg, Or Mace1/2 Tsp Cloves
1 Cup Walnuts, Black

Cream brown sugar and butter. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Add Molasses, milk. Sift dry ingredients together, add. Add nuts and fruit. Pack in small loaf tins or molds. Butter and paper the pans, first. Bake in 3000 oven for 2 hours. Place a pie pan of water in lower part of oven to keep cakes moist. Splash with dark rum or brandy as it cools.

Cream of tartar and baking soda make a leaven similar to Baking powder. With the arrival of modern commercial baking powders,that are more controlled and therefore predictable in their effects than home brewed, cream of tartar has become hard to find. Substitute 3 Tsp baking powder.


Hard sauce?
Brandy Sauce

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 Tbl cornstarchmix all three in saucepan
1/8 Tsp salt
1 cup hot wateradd slowly stir constantly to keep sauce smooth
1 Tbl butteradd both
2 Tbl brandycook until clear

Serve over pudding, mince pie, or fruit cake

My annual visit to this has changed the ingredients some.
I add:

  • A half pound of filberts
  • A half pound of Brazils
  • A half pound of Australian ginger root. That's the kind in cubes. I cut those in half or quarters to match the raisin and fruit pieces
  • Or a half pound dried cranberries or dried cherries or neither
  • The fruit and nuts are mixed together with a wineglass or generous tot of a dark flavorful rum(more recently that has changed to a darkish malt) in a large bowl the night before I mix the cake batter
  • As the cakes come out of the oven they get a generous baptism of the rum or malt.
  • Do watch the time. My smallish pans bake the cakes unless than two hours. Check yours early and often as they say about voting.
I've been tempted to try dried blueberries but haven't done so yet. I have used smashed ginger root in place of the dried ginger powder.

Here's this year's crop:
These get vacuum sealed and labeled.

One year I gave a cake to my mentor Doc Shaffer. He took it to a gathering in Seattle. Norm Rice, then Seattle's Mayor, was among the guests and liked the cake. "It's the nuts!" Norm Rice said as Doc reported to me.

But my most treasured reaction came one year from my Father-in-law: "Anybody who puts whole Brazil nuts in fruit cake can't be all bad!"


Update: Several folk have made remarks about the "dense" fruit cakes of their youth. This puzzles me. My fruit cake is basically a bunch of fruit and nuts held -- sometimes quite tenuously -- together with the cake. (All by itself the cake batter makes an excellent spice cake.) Perhaps people mean dry and brick like when they say dense. This cake remains soft if not over baked. A generous hand with the malt or rum helps to keep every article (and person) in suspension.
2nd Update, 7 December: Ann prompts me to what I have not brought to mind in many, many years. In the forties we lived in a brick "square deal" bungalow in a failed development near Chicago. Only a half dozen or so houses had been completed before the builder's 1929 bust. Another was occupied by a family named Reinerts who had children of similar ages to Dorothy's and so all became friends. Mary Reinerts made a wonderful fruit cake. Dorothy requested the recipe, please. Mary allowed friendship to overcome her reluctance. But, she explained, the recipe was one that must be guarded. Her family had been cooks to the Royal Family of Austria when they developed this recipe for them. Dorothy promised. Yet all her children are furnished with their copies and who knows where else the recipe has traveled. Nay-the-less, it appears I have acquired yet another karmic debt by publishing it here. Saa-a-a.
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  1. As someone who was the recipient of all too many inedible fruitcakes as a young penguin, I'm not sure that I want to try your recipe, but I must say that it does seem better than the... dense... stuff that I was afflicted with as a youngster.

    - Badtux the Fruitcake-afflicted Penguin

  2. PS - the fruitcakes I was afflicted with as a young man with devoted elderly relatives could have been used by cops as tactical batons if they'd been slightly longer. That's what I mean by dense. They were small bricks perhaps 2x2x6" in size which weighed at least a pound. That's dense! As far as the "cake" part, there was so much syrup and sugar in this concoction that if you'd removed the fruit it would have had much the consistency of a soft pecan praline. Hmm, come to think of it, these were the same elderly relatives who liked foisting pecan pralines off on me (but *that*, I did not mind)...