24 December 2017

For the love of Fruitcake

I was recently quoted in an article in Adweek about fruitcake. It's an excellent article about the history of fruitcake, how it may have received its bad reputation, and why there is that silent group of people (hello, person reading this blog post!) who actually love fruitcake.

I truly believe what I said in that article. Fruitcake's time has come. Why not? Just about everything else has been revisited. I live in Chicago, and I've seen the following items, just off the top of my head, get a modern update, or been made locally, or just been revisited with a fresh perspective:

  • Mustard
  • Twinkies
  • Ham
  • Moon pies
  • Cider
  • Cookies & Milk
  • French fries & vanilla shakes
  • Pickles

So why not fruitcake? Why not you, why not now? You might be buying local already--your beer, your bread, your alcohol, your pickles, your food. Why not find a local person making fruitcake and buy/try it? Or better yet, make it yourself?

Granted, maybe you just don't like it--you don't like the spiciness, or the nuts, or you don't like the texture of all the fruit, That's fine (my husband, God bless him, doesn't like it). Don't eat it. But...have you even tried it?

Fruitcake has a lovely, long tradition of being a condensed expression of a good harvest, of abundance, of hospitality, of care, and of love. For those reasons alone, give it a try.

Happy Holidays! Happy Winter! Happy New Year!

23 December 2017

Fruitcake tasting 2017!

The annual fruitcake tasting was held earlier this holiday season. As you may have read, on the blog or on Facebook, a group of us make different fruitcake recipes and share them. We agreed this year that our fruitcake-making abilities have definitely improved from when we first began. It's hard to make a good fruitcake! There's the purchasing--who's a good purveyor of quality fruit, etc? Then the preparation: carving out enough time and doing enough planning to have your fruit soaking in alcohol, and making sure you have ALL the ingredients in time to bake. Because we have our party right after Thanksgiving, that means that we're purchasing ingredients and baking right after Halloween--when, face it, most people are not in the holiday baking mood.

But several years of practice have honed this group's skills, and the photo below is the result-- a stellar group of delicious fruitcakes, cookies, and even a panettone!

The fruit(cake)s of our labors
What you're looking at, clockwise from upper left, is a panettone, Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Fruitcake, Martha Washington's great cake, a half of Jane Parker fruitcake (the only commercially made cake in the bunch), Nigella Lawson's Gorgeously Golden Dundee cake, the Joy of Cooking's Pfeffernuesse (the powdered-sugar covered cookies), a chocolate fruitcake, and an 1866 (or Lee, as in Robert E) fruitcake. Unfortunately I don't have the last 2 fruitcake recipes in a linkable format yet, stay tuned.

This group has had the Nigella Chocolate Fruitcake once before--a dense, dark fruitcake. I personally don't get a strong chocolate flavor from it; the other chocolate fruitcake tasted more chocolatey. Still, it's a good one to make if you like those dark, caramelized, deep and rich flavors in your fruitcake. 

My friend who made the panettone was not super happy with the result, but I thought it was delicious! A close up of the texture is at right.Some commercially made panettones are cloyingly sweet, but this was delicious, yeasty, bready/cakey, and yummy with chocolate bits and fruit.

I've posted on the Martha Washington cake on Facebook, I'm pretty sure. I would not call it a fruitcake, frankly--it's more just a poundcake with fruits and nuts in it. The preparation for this cake was done by beating the egg whites and yolks separately. The whites are beaten until stiff, and then folded into the batter. However, this batter is pretty stiff all on its own, so I didn't get a good rise--I feel the batter flattened out a lot of the bubbles in the yolks. I also had soaked the fruit in alcohol, as mentioned in the recipe, but then also wrapped the cake in brandy-soaked cheesecloth. Uh-uh. Not enough heft in this cake to support the additional alcohol--it felt a bit too hot in the mouth. Once that alcohol evaporated, however, it tasted fine. I wouldn't bake it again, however, as I truly didn't feel it was a fruitcake.

The other Nigella Lawson recipe, the Golden fruitcake, was a big hit. This cake is described by Nigella as "squidgy," and I agree. It is just oozing delicious, sticky fruit. Big thing with this cake--gluten free! No flour in the recipe. Certainly adds to the "squidginess" if there's no glutinous batter involved! I advise cutting this one in very thin slices, however, as it is quite rich.

Closeup of the 1866 (Lee) fruitcake
The chocolate and Lee fruitcakes were very similar in that they had a pretty even proportion of fruit to cake, and both were QUITE boozy--both are soaked in booze after baking. The chocolate fruitcake was very approachable--almost a quick bread with fruit in it. A good "fruitcake for beginners."

Finally, the Pfeffernuesse. I was a little disappointed. They were fine as cookies go--a spicy gingerbread-type cookie dusted in powdered sugar. I made these because they actually had black pepper in the recipe, and I was expecting something deliciously spicy. They certainly looked cute. But I have another Pfeffernuesse recipe that I've made that I like much better--they are dipped in a lemon glaze instead of powdered sugar, and they taste, well, frankly, more fruitcake-ish.

The Jane Parker I've reviewed elsewhere. It was tasty, but as usual, commercially made pales alongside good, homemade cake.

Hope you all are tucking into a delicious fruitcake of your choice as we edge toward the dark nights of winter. Happy Holidays, everyone!

18 November 2017

Fruitcake Review: Jane Parker Classic Fruitcake

From what I hear, for certain areas of the country, the Jane Parker fruitcakes were a beloved part of Christmas. Not for my family—I had never heard of it until some blog readers asked about it. You all know I’m an OG Gethsemani Farm fan.

I had reviewed the Jane Parker Dark fruitcake a few years back. It was fine but evidently I wasn’t a fan. Since then, it’s my understanding that the cake became unavailable until the brand and original recipe were purchased by a new group after A & P’s bankruptcy. The cake is now made in the US Midwest (previously it had been made in Canada).

I was sent a 3 pound fruitcake, which costs $49.97 with free shipping. Packaged in a holiday tin, it’s $59.97 with tin. This is pretty comparable to other fruitcakes. It’s pricey, but I personally love it when shipping is included—just one flat cost. The fruitcakes are also available in 1-pound and whopping 4.5 pound sizes. The ingredients are OK for a commercial fruitcake: raisins first, then cherries, pineapples, and the nuts are pecans. There is high fructose corn syrup in this cake, a bit of a surprise for me. So many products have been dropping this ingredient. I guess I’d prefer sugar but I’m not terribly surprised to see this in a commercial fruitcake. Finally, and my favorite: Fruitcake flavor. I don’t know. I guess a commercial flavoring—perhaps a spice mix? I didn’t get a clear answer when I asked the company. No worries – let this cake keep its fruitcake-flavored air of mystery.

The cake is garnished with pecans on top. They and all the nuts in the cake tasted very fresh—a straight-up pecan flavor, not burned, caramelized or otherwise off. There is a good proportion of cake to fruit and nuts in this cake—meaning that it’s not all fruit. The cake itself is gold, and has a nice buttery, pound-cake like flavor.

The overall flavor is not complex, good and approachable-- orange, pecan, sweet, pound cake. I’ve been happily snacking on this one. If you miss Jane Parker, you are safe to jump back in the pool and purchase. It’s a good “fruitcake for beginners.”

28 November 2015

Fruitcake Tasting 2015!!

Last night was the annual Fruitcake tasting party at my friend Sherry's house. This event has truly evolved. A couple years ago we featured primarily purchased fruitcakes featured on this blog, with only one homemade cake. This year, there were seven--yes, seven-- homemade fruitcakes featured.

Another interesting progression has been our attitudes toward fruitcake. Previously, the attendees were fruitcake-curious. Now they are full on fruitcake aficionados, defenders, and even proselytizers.

So on to the party. We started with cocktails using a mixer that was really delicious and could be used to create both a fruitcake-esque type cocktail, or it could go full-on tropical. Here it is:

The Owl's Brew Coco-lada was very delicious mixed with vodka, because it created a cocktail that was fruity and coconut-y, but also light and not cloying. Certainly when you're steeling yourself up to plow through six fruitcakes, you don't need cloying. 

After our cocktails and dinner, we prepared ourselves for the fruitcakes. And what a beautiful variety met our eyes:

The center fruitcake is one from the New Antoinette Pope School cookbook, an older cookbook, I think from the '70s, and a local Chicago favorite, the Antoinette Pope School of Fancy Cookery being based in Chicago.

So in the photo, going clockwise around, starting with the cake immediately to the left of center, we have:

Quite an impressive showing, eh? I must mention that my friend Laura, besides contributing the White House and Antoinette Pope, also made mini-loaves of two previously-made and highly esteemed fruitcakes, the Gourmet Best Fruitcake Ever (sorry, I'm not finding a link for this one) and Fiona Cairns' Rich Tamarind Fruitcake, aka the Will and Kate fruitcake, since it was served at their wedding. So I was sent home, blissfully happy, with a plate that looked like this:

PLUS two more loaves. I think I'll be set for the year......except I have family members with whom I must share my bounty. We'll see about that.

Anyway, on to the tasting. I'm going to group these into the darks, the whites, and the others. I won't be mentioning any Southern-style fruitcakes (which I define as very sweet, almost candy-like, without alcohol), because, it turns out, we all like our fruitcakes plenty boozy. 

The two white fruitcakes were the Mary Meade White and the Apricot-Macadamia. Both of these I would consider "gateway"  fruitcakes or "fruitcakes for beginners."  They both were more like rich pound cakes with fruit (and booze) added. They were both delicious--keep in mind we had already had cocktails and eaten pizza, so I think a lighter fruitcake was welcome. They were well balanced, boozy, rich, and with a nice pound-cake-type crumb. The macadamia-apricot cake in particular was on the edge of what you could consider fruitcake, versus the Margaret Meade, which had cherries in it and so seemed a bit more fruitcake-esque. We all agreed, however, that these were delicious. 

The darks included the Toasted Almond, the Nigella Lawson, and the Antoinette Pope, although the latter was more of a happy medium. 

I made the toasted almond and on first tasting it, was not a big fan. There is a lot of raisin in this fruitcake, and anyone who has read other posts knows what an un-fan of the raisin I am. This one also has a lot of molasses, and I used stout in the batter as well, so overall the cake had a very dark, toasty flavor. The others in the party, however, liked the unique flavor, and I have a feeling that on its own, I will appreciate this more as the rich, dark, spicy cake that it is. 

The Nigella Lawson is also a rather dark fruitcake, having cocoa in the batter, which I'm sure gives it a darker flavor. It does not, however, give the cake a chocolate flavor, so if you were hoping for chocolate gooiness, this is not that cake. There are prunes in this one and overall it also shares that dark, rich spiciness. It's very elegant as well if you choose to decorate it as my friend Sherry did, with gold dragees.

Coming in sort of in the middle of the ones I've mentioned so far was the Antoinette Pope. This is a classic, quintessential fruitcake, boozy, fruit-filled, and spicy, but not overly so. My friend went with a lot of citron and peels for her fruit mix on this one. I personally love orange peel because it gives cakes a fresh, bright flavor, but this was tempered with the slightly bitter taste of citron, which added complexity. I liked this recipe as a very nice take on a classic fruitcake. 

On to the last two. The White House fruitcake was my favorite of the night, primarily because it was flat out sweet due to the delicious apricot glaze and icing. It was a really moist, boozy cake. If you peruse the recipe you'll see that it has a few different additions--almond extract, dried pears, etc---that adds to its uniqueness. 

The final was a really unique cake or bread, called barmbrack, a traditional Irish fruitcake or bread. Upon a little investigation I learned that it's actually associated with Halloween more than Christmas, but I was thrilled to have this on the table. It has a really unique and yummy flavor, containing dried fruits like apples, and those fruits are soaked in tea. It was really unique. The one we had was a bit too moist and resembled in a way a bread pudding, but it was delicious. Definitely a recipe to investigate in the future.

There was some interesting discussion about the amount of care, time and let's face it, money that goes into making a fruitcake. We discussed going super hard-core and candying our own fruit for next year--but honestly, then, the preparation for these cakes would have to start in summertime, and as it is we were baking cakes around Halloween. What I take away from those discussions, however, is a real appreciation for what a fruitcake is--a celebration of bounty, richness, time, and love, all combined in one cake.

Happy Holidays all!!