Saturday, September 1, 2012

In a Christmas Mood: Fruitcake

Some things in life need to be planned for.  Christmas means thinking about gifts (no C. Eve shopping for me!) and something I have always loved, fruitcake.

I know, it has a bad reputation.  Comedian Johnny Carson is reported as saying, "There is only one fruitcake in the world; people just keep passing it around."  Or something like that.  But I truly love it, in its many varied forms.  Sliced, slightly heated, with a dollop of whipped cream on top and I'm a happy person.  Add a glass of eggnog on the side and I am in ecstasy.

The really good fruitcake is made well in advance of the holiday season so it can be wrapped in cheesecloth and soaked in brandy.  And that, my friends, is what was on my mind today.

I perused a number of books and viewed a variety of recipes.  The modern ones tend to request that colorful mix of candied fruits and I was tempted because I have some of that mix in my cupboard.  But I was looking for something that was older.  How old should I go?

Here is a history of the fruitcake:

Although the Romans talked about fruitcake, the one that is so familiar to us started in the Middle Ages and improved over the years with nuts, spices, dried fruits, sweetener.

The earliest recipe I could find that still resembled what I love at Christmas came from Elizabeth Ellicott Lea's Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers, which I found as an ebook here:

Published in 1845

She lists several fruitcake recipes, including the Plum Cake ("plum" is an old term for dried fruits of most any kind). I chose the one called:

A Rich Fruit Cake.

Have the following articles prepared before you begin the cake: dry and sift four pounds of flour, four pounds of butter with the salt washed out, two pounds of loaf-sugar pounded, one ounce of nutmegs grated, an ounce of mace pounded; wash four pounds of currants; dry, pick, and rub them in flour; stone and cut two pounds of raisins; slice two pounds of citron, blanch a pound of sweet almonds and cut them in very thin slices; break thirty eggs, separate the whites and yelks, and beat them till very light; work the butter with your hand till it is soft as cream; put in alternately the flour, sugar and eggs. When all are mixed in, and the cake looks very light, add the spice, fruit, almonds, and half a pint of brandy; set it in a well heated oven to bake; when it has risen, and the top is beginning to brown, cover it with paper; let it bake four hours, and when it is nearly cool, ice it. This will keep a long time in a stone pan, covered close.

Ingredients for a half recipe!

Rich? Looks pretty good. More than my poor little bowls, mixer, and oven can handle? Most certainly. I debated on doing a half recipe or a quarter recipe. The half recipe won out and I just crossed my fingers that I could make it all fit into my various mixing bowls.

Did you notice?  The only leavening is the beaten egg whites.  This is exciting! 

Reading through the recipe told me that I needed to pay attention to the order of things if I was going to use my mixer. First I separated the eggs (15 yolks is about 1 1/4 cups when using large eggs). Then following the "beat them till very light" direction, I had the mixer beat the whites while I used a whisk to beat the yolks.  I stopped when the whites stopped expanding (they fit in the bowl!) -- they were stiff like a meringue but not dry.  The yolks were "lemon yellow" and foamy.

Yolks just beginning to be whisked.

Yolks after a lot of whisking.

I transferred the whites to another bowl so I could use the mixer for the batter and laughed when I saw them hold the shape of the mixer bowl.

Whites shaped like the bottom of the mixer's bowl

Next I put the butter, cut into smallish chunks, into the mixer's bowl and started beating them.  Recommendation:  Have the butter softened to room temperature before doing this so the chunks are less likely to climb out of the bowl!  When finished, I don't think the butter was truly "as soft as cream" but it was very soft.

I then alternated adding the flour, sugar, and yolks.  I was reluctant to mix in the whites because I kept thinking they should be folded in, despite no sign of that in the directions.  Once I got the other ingredients in, the whites went into the mixer bowl and I was pleased to see them incorporated and still make the batter fluffy.  Then I added the spices so the mixer could get them well blended.  It took 3 1/2 "nuts" of nutmeg to get one half ounce!  That is a lot of grating, even with some help from the spice grinder.

Batter out of the mixer.  Not enough room!

The batter had to go into my giant steel mixing bowl in order to have room for the fruit and almonds plus leave room for mixing by hand.  I was so relieved I did only a half recipe. 

As with the Mincemeat recipe (Aug 15, 2012), I couldn't get citron.  I didn't want to use one pound of peel so I did what any cook from history would have done:  I improvised! I used dried cranberries.  I think they will be a fantastic substitution, adding a bit of tart to the sweet currants and raisins.

Then in went the fruit, nuts, and brandy.

Before stirring
After a good stirring, I tasted the batter and declared it:  delicious!  It was light, fluffy, and had a wonderful flavor.  The mace/nutmeg/brandy combination was great.  I wanted to keep eating batter.

All mixed up!

This half recipe filled five of my loaf pans (four glass, one metal) to about 3/4 full.

I got them to fit in the oven on one rack and baked them for an hour at 350 degrees F.  At this point I covered them with parchment paper and set the timer for 30 minutes.  I really hoped it wouldn't take them another 4 hours of cooking to be done as it was already 9pm.

As it turned out, another 30 minutes at 300 degrees F and they were ready.  Perhaps they were ready earlier -- they looked just a tad dry -- but I was happy with 30 minutes.  The "stick test" showed they were cooked all the way through.

The Verdict:  The loaf I chose for the taste test was solid (not fluffy) but pretty light weight.  The inside was still moist although the outside was a touch dry and the bottom had one area that was lightly scorched.

The flavor was just as I expected it!  The mace/nutmeg/brandy combination was classic and the fruits were moist and flavorful.  Overall I would say it was a success.

Final notes:  Modern ovens maintain a level temperature as compared to the wood-fired ovens of 1845.  Next time I would bake the loaves at 325 degrees F for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, until they were done (barely).  No parchment is necessary.  I'm so glad I checked them often because I was really worried I would end up with blackened fruit bricks and I don't need any more doorstops.

The other four loaves will be wrapped in cheesecloth and soaked in brandy.  I'll get back to you on that to see how the flavors change over time.

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