23 November 2014

Review: Neiman-Marcus Traditional Fruitcake

I'd had the Neiman Marcus Traditional Fruitcake on my list of cakes to review for some time now--I mean, it's Neiman Marcus. But often it would be sold out or unavailable. I managed to find it, available but backordered, at the end of October, and so ordered the 2 pound cake for $32.32, delivery included (nice!). They had promised the cake by November 21 at the latest, but it turns out I got it quite a bit earlier than that. As you know I was wrapped up in my own fruitcake making so didn't get around to trying it until just recently.

So here we go. Here's the tin:

Yup, that's an alligator texture on the label. This has to be the most fashion-forward fruitcake I've tried. That big sticky line marring the sticker came with the cake; that would have been pretty upsetting if I was buying this to give but I'm not so it's not a big deal (and knowing Neiman-Marcus I'm sure they would send me another one if it had been).

Here's the cake itself:

Pretty--there's a bit of candied orange on top in additional to the standard cherries and pecans, which adds a sort of "foody" vibe to the cake. The ingredients themselves are fairly typical for a mass-produced fruitcake (which is the category I think I'm going to put this in)--with a surprise:

Cocoa. There's cocoa in the cake, something I don't believe I've ever seen unless the cake was tryng to be chocolately). The fruits: pineapple, cherries, oranges, dates, raisins. The nuts? Walnuts and pecans both. There is both rum and brandy in this cake, which you can definitely taste--I'm sure one was for soaking the fruit, the other for soaking the cake and/or in the batter. There's also honey in the mix--not sure if I can smell or taste it specifically but props to them for including it, I'm sure it adds to the flavor. There is shortening, including partially hydrogenated, in the mix, which isn't fabulous--I'd prefer butter. There are various preservatives, caramel color, and food colorings at the end of the list that don't thrill me--I'm guessing the colorings are from the fruit, but caramel coloring? Is this necessary?

Here's a photo of a slice:

The taste is sweet and pretty darn boozy, which is nice--we don't often see a boozy mass-produced. There are big chunks of moist fruit, no problem there--this cake is not dry. The flavor is a bit more complex than just sweet, there's slight bitterness from the orange peel and walnuts and definitely a caramel or dark fruitcake flavor. The cocoa does not add a "Hey--there's chocolate in here!" flavor, but adds to the overall dark spicy effect.

I think I've mentioned this in previous posts, but it's interesting how much my opinion is influenced by how hungry I am. "Well okay," you're thinking, "she's supposed to be a reviewer and she's telling me she's not 100% unbiased?" Yes, that's what I'm saying, but to my credit at least I'm self-aware enough to notice my bias. The first time I tried this was as a "breakfast dessert" after I'd eaten my breakfast. At that time I thought "meh." This last time I ate it AS my breakfast. I also let it warm up just the tiniest bit, which allows the flavors to deepen and expand a bit (like fine wine--I let my fruitcake "breath"). The second time around, this cake tasted much better--still perhaps not as fresh as a homemade fruitcake, but not quite as just straight-up sweet and sweet as the first time I tried it.
My conclusion on this cake? It's OK. At $32.32 plus shipping for 2 pounds, it's not a bad deal, the ingredients are not horrible, and it's certainly one of the prettier fruitcakes I've ordered from a large company. I think that the mass-produced fruitcakes have a new winner.

[NOTE: as of this writing the fruitcake is sold out; it obviously has a following!]

02 November 2014

Making a fruitcake: it’s a labor of love

Preparing to make a fruitcake today. As many of my readers know, I am not a fruitcake maker, or even a baker, in general. However, I recognize that the homemade ones are usually the most delicious. Because of this, I always intended to make a fruitcake this year. My friends are having their annual fruitcake tasting right after Thanksgiving, which is why I might be starting a bit earlier than some. I did purchase a Neiman-Marcus fruitcake, which is on back order (how could I resist? this is, after all Mondo Fruitcake), and might consider the purchase of a couple more, but mostly I’m focused on this one.

When I make something, I tend to start with something traditional or time-tested as a baseline before moving onto variations—for example, I almost always follow a recipe to the letter the first time. So for this fruitcake, I haven’t selected any fancy recipe, but rather the Dark Fruitcake recipe out of my Joy of Cooking cookbook (the 1997 publication, which I believe was skewered by some because it also contained fancy/exotic recipes, but I love it to death—it’s my Bible when it comes to cooking).

This gosh-dern fruitcake. I’m sure anyone who has made one will agree with me that it's a freakin’ scavenger hunt to assemble all the ingredients needed.

My friend Laura graciously stepped up to be the candied fruit coordinator for three of the fruitcake bakers for aforementioned party, and purchased, received, and stickily sorted all of the candied fruit: lemon and orange peel, citron, pineapple, and Morello cherries (from Market Hall Foods). They are very nice quality and I'm sure that will reflect well on this fruitcake.

It was up to me to come up with the dried fruits and spices, then. Not too difficult in a metropolitan area such as Chicago, but I did have a bit of a tussle with the currants and mace. I should have just found a gourmet shop but ended up wandering aimlessly through several fruit/international food markets near me, finally giving up and purchasing dried blueberries instead of the currants. Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to make that much of a difference (and OK, I admit, the recipe is not being followed to the absolute letter--but who cares but me, really?)

I started all the fruit out with a red wine soak last night. This is what the makers of my favorite fruitcake do. Today’s the day to put it all together and get it baked. I’ll report back soon!

15 December 2013

Review: June Taylor Christmas Cake

I bought the $55, 1-pound June Taylor Christmas Cake online, and then paid an additional $14.90 for shipping to the middle of the country (from Oakland, California, where June Taylor is based). So $69.90 later, a very small, one-pound loaf arrived. Needless to say, this is a very expensive cake, $3.40 per ounce without shipping, $4.37 per ounce if shipping is included, so I certainly had my hopes up.

The cake is shipped with an explanatory note, describing how the cake is made. They certainly keep things local with this cake, even the wrapping paper: per the note, "June watercolors the cake wraps before a letterpress design is printed on them." Here's what that looks like:

The ingredients, listed in this note, ascribe the origins of each ingredient, which are truly locally sourced from around Oakland: the port and brandy in which the dried fruits are macerated is from Alameda, the almonds are from Chico, the Bing cherries are from Escalon. If I lived in the Oakland area I certainly would be proud of the bounty in that area on reading this list. Here's the ingredient list from the back of the wrap:

I hope that's clear (but it probably isn't, knowing me). There are candied citrus peels in this cake, but the rest is dried fruit, including plums, apricots, and cherries. And, unfortunately for this writer, there are a lot of grapes and golden raisins. A LOT of those little guys. Locally sourced, yes, but still a lot of them. Regardless, this is a nice clean, wholesome list of ingredients. 

Upon unwrapping the cake, you find a cute little loaf wrapped in cheesecloth. Per the little note, "your cake has been washed with an aged brandy and wrapped in cheesecloth to keep it moist:"

Looks very similar to the Robert Lambert or other smaller fruitcakes I've had. Here it is unwrapped:

And finally, here's a slice:
A nice proportion of fruit to cake, but not very pretty--everything is very brown. Definitely not a super festive-looking cake. 

So on to the taste. Well I've been hinting at it with the reference to ALL the grapes/raisins: this cake had that sort of grapey, burnt taste that is not my favorite. I think this also may be due to the inclusion of the dried plums. Come to think of it, port wine is also grape-based, a fortified wine, so gosh, that's a heck of a lot of grape in this cake. 

The cake itself has a nice dense crumb and a rich flavor due to the brown sugar, spices, and alcohol, but I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the flavor. I was expecting something a bit more dynamic or original. Certainly, June Taylor calls this a "traditional Christmas cake," so is certainly not marketing this as anything more than that, and in that sense it fits the bill. 

I did find the cake to be just a bit dry when I first tried it. Referring back to the note packed with the cake (a very useful reference, that), they recommend that it "can periodically be refreshed with more brandy." So before wrapping it up, I brushed a bit of cognac on the outside, re-wrapped in the cheesecloth and put in a storage bag. I also followed the instructions on the note to "refrigerate until the cake is cold and using a sharp knife thinly slice the cake and bring back to room temperature to serve." The next time I tried it, I did just that, let it come back to room temperature before trying it, and that also helped--the flavors and aromas expanded and became more complex. 

So I can say I tried to give this cake the benefit of the doubt. This is certainly a delicious, well-made cake sourced from local ingredients and made with care. If you care about food made from "quality ingredients" from "local farmers and artisan producers" (again from that note), then certainly this would be an excellent cake to purchase. And this cake is indeed an experience: the entire experience shows a desire by June Taylor to create a beautiful, well-crafted cake, even down to the wrap. 

However, face it, this cake cost a lot of money, and for that money, didn't deliver anything terribly original. If you're trying to balance quality with value, I would recommend checking out the Jampot (Holy Transfiguration Skete), Old Cavendish, or even one of the Bien Fait cakes for something similar at a lower price. 

08 December 2013

Fruitcake recipes from the fruitcake tasting, part 2

I was hoping to maybe have a couple more recipes from the fruitcake tasting but realized I think I'm really only missing one or two, so below are links to the others.

In my previous post I linked to the two more traditional fruitcakes. If you like a more traditional, dark, candied-fruit-and-booze-filled fruitcake, these would be the ones to make.

The Best Fruitcake Ever recipe from Yankee magazine was the cake in the heart pan. That's their description, not necessarily mine, but this would be a good recipe to start getting people into fruitcake, or maybe to serve on Christmas morning with coffee. It had a quick bread type taste.

The panforte recipe that I made, I grabbed from the Savour Fare blog. The only thing I did differently was that I used King Arthur Flour's candied mixed peel instead of the orange peel, melon and lemon zest. It was delicious as is, but I think it might be even more delicious with the original ingredients. I'd make this again--but I would COMPLETELY pay for pre-blanched and skinned almonds and hazelnuts, just to cut down on time. If I did that I could make this in about an hour, where since I had actually cracked open, skinned, and toasted the nuts, it took me about four (or it felt like it).

There are a couple of conclusions that I can draw from tasting all these homemade fruitcakes:

  1. Homemade almost always beats commercially-made, simply because anything you make (as long as you know how to bake and don't mess anything up) will taste fresh and wholesome.
  2. Homemade tastes only as good as the ingredients you use, and those ingredients should be fresh and of good quality. 

I didn't think I'd have enough candied fruit for the panforte, so drove over to the local grocery store to see if they had any more. I was pointed to a tiny, forlorn corner of the produce department, to 2-3 very, very sad plastic containers of candied fruit. They were violently colored and just didn't look good at all. I decided that I'd rather have less fruit in my cake than use that fruit, and I think it was a wise choice.

If you want to make your own fruitcake, plan for it. Collect what you need, and invest in good candied or dried fruit, fresh nuts, etc. My friend followed the direction at the bottom of the Best Christmas Cake recipe and purchased her fruit from Market Hall Foods in Oakland, and it certainly seemed to make a difference in her cakes. The most phenomenal cakes I've tasted have house-made candied fruit in them, so if you're feel obsessive you might want to start there.