This is the time of year when even the Grinchiest of people will embrace family holiday traditions. Since childhood, all of my Christmas traditions have been, for the most part, centered around food. My mom baked and I baked with her. Then I baked and she helped me. And, it wasn’t just a batch of cookies and a couple of cakes, it was scads upon scads of goodies. Cookies were baked by the thousand or so and boxed for giving. Candies were pulled, and twisted, and shaped for eating and decorating the tree. Cakes and breads were lined up in their little tins and wrapped in cellophane for last minute hostess gifts. The gingerbread house was the centerpiece of our mantle and the tree was awash in decorated sugar cookies and popcorn and candy garlands. Once my boys left home, I continued with these traditions for a few years but as time passed and everybody seemed to be on a diet, I gave up most of my baking. BUT, this year I have returned with a vengeance, beginning with fruitcake to which my dearest friend, Jane Green, said “Are you outta your mind?”
I happen to love fruitcake of any type and although I know that I am in the minority, the aroma of the spice, brandy, and sugar that comes together in that sturdy little cake (I always make it in small loaves) provokes such a sensory remembrance of Christmas that I persist in making a batch or two. For many years, I have begun with the recipe passed down from my Scottish grandmother and, yesterday while putting all of the ingredients together, I couldn’t help thinking about what an extravagance the cake must have been in Victorian households, particularly in those of working class families as were my forebears. The sugar, butter, and exotic candied fruits and fruit peels must have been extraordinary luxuries. Not to even mention the Scotch that my teetotaler grandmother used to soak the cake. She probably made one cake and, since it was nicely inebriated and therefore kept for months, she probably also cut it into paper thin slices that were to be doled out in small measures.
I wantonly made 15 cakes and spent as much time looking for homes for them as I did making them! As I wrapped this first batch in cheesecloth, I began making calls – “Do you want me to send you a fruitcake?” The responses were, as I suspected, none too encouraging so if you want a fruitcake, let me know, I have quite a few ready to go.
Gramma’s Dark Fruitcake
Makes Ten 6-inch loaves
1½ cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
8 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
⅔ cup white corn syrup
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ cup brandy
1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate, thawed
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1½ cups sifted all-purpose flour plus enough flour to make a soft batter,
about 7 cups
2 pounds chopped glazed fruit
1½ pounds pitted dates
1½ pounds dried currants
1 pound golden seedless raisins
1 pound dark seedless raisins
½ pound glazed red cherries
½ pound glazed green cherries
¼ pound glazed pineapple, chopped
1½ cups walnut pieces
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
Brandy, port, whiskey, or white wine for soaking
Preheat the oven to 300ºF.
Lightly coat the interior of ten 6-inch loaf pans with nonstick baking spray. Set aside.
Place the butter in the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle and beat, on low, to soften completely. Add the sugar and beat until light yellow and creamy. Add the egg yolks and beat to incorporate; then, add the corn syrup and beat to blend thoroughly.
Place the buttermilk in a small bowl and stir in the baking soda. It will bubble up slightly. Add the mixture to the batter and beat to blend. With the motor running, add the brandy and orange juice concentrate, followed by the cinnamon.
Place about ¾ cup of the flour in a large bowl. Add the glazed fruits, dates, currants, raisins, cherries, pineapple, and walnuts. Sprinkle with the remaining ¾ cup of flour and toss to coat. This will help separate all of the fruits and keep them from sticking together.
Pour the batter over the fruit/nut mixture and, using your hands, begin mixing. Slowly add the remaining flour, using enough to make a soft batter. This generally takes about 7 cups of flour.
Place the egg whites in the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the whip. Add the cream of tartar and beat until stiff peaks form.
Using your hands, fold the beaten egg whites into the fruit batter, taking care to incorporate them without completely deflating them.
Scoop an equal portion of the batter into each of the prepared loaf pans.
Place a container of cool water in the bottom of the preheated oven. Place the cakes in the oven, leaving room between each one. Bake for about 2 hours or until firm, dark golden brown, and the edges begin to pull away from the pan.
Remove from the oven. Tip the cakes from the pans and place on wire racks to cool.
When cool, spoon about 3 tablespoons of alcohol of choice over each cake. Wrap in cheesecloth and then in aluminum foil. If not using within 5 days, leaving the cheesecloth on, repeat the soaking process.
The cakes will keep for about a year if they are frequently doused with alcohol and kept well-wrapped in a cool spot.