20 December 2008

Review: Jane Parker 1 Pound Dark Fruitcake

Jane Parker is distributed by A&P food stores. There were A&P stores in the Chicago area when I was growing up, but there no longer are and I guess now they're only in the New York/New Jersey area. If anyone is reading this who can fill me in more about A&P and the Jane Parker fruitcake legend surrounding them, please do so in the comments.

I purchased the one-pound dark fruitcake (they call it fruit cake, with a space). It cost $20 including shipping. They seem to have worked out some type of purchasing and shipping arrangement with Amazon, as that's where you go to buy the cake. This cake wins as having the largest and most wasteful shipping box:

Hello, tiny little fruitcake. Welcome to my home! Perhaps they're implying that I should have bought more. The box that the cake comes in is nothing special, though there are some larger, ring fruitcakes available that come in pretty tins:

A bit presumptuous, don't you think, to call themselves America's Favorite? Finally, the fruitcake itself:

An aside (please skip this paragraph to continue the review): I realize that the following disclaimer is a long time coming, but here it finally is: for all of you who have stuck with me through this blog, and for anyone new or just coming upon this blog: I take lousy photos. It's not something I'm interested in, I don't own Photoshop, and I don't have tripods or lights. I'm really sorry that the best picture you have of these cakes is either a dark small photo (because I couldn't use the flash because of glare), or a shiny, glare-filled photo (because the dark photo was too blurry). I hope they're still a bit helpful.

Although this is a mass-produced fruitcake, I'm going to lump it in with the Other fruitcakes on my sidebar, because it is truly different. A couple of years ago my brother-in-law shared a couple slices of his mother's fruitcake with me. And I loved his attitude about it--he was all "this is my mom's fruitcake, it's what I grew up with, and although it might not be what you're used to, and you might not like it, I don't care." A big BRAVO to that attitude. The kind of fruitcake you love is influenced, I think, by the kind that you grew up with (maybe that's why many people don't like it, because they didn't grow up with any--pity). I'm not here to denigrate anyone's love of the fruitcake that jingles their bells. Well, on second thought, maybe I am a bit . . . but I, to paraphrase Voltaire, might not like your taste in fruitcake, but will defend to the death your right to have that taste in fruitcake.

Anyway, back to my brother-in-law. The Jane Parker fruitcake reminds me a bit of his mom's fruitcake (which was not bad in the least, just very different from what I'm used to). It's a cake, with fruit in it. As you can see from the photo above, there is a lot of cake in this fruitcake. The ingredents are not so great: they include partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, and caramel color. The dark fruitcake contains brown sugar and molasses, as well, and of course preserved fruit (which are called glaced fruit because the cake is actually made in Canada and that's what they call it--I think in the U.S. we call them candied fruit, but for some reason I call them preserved, which doesn't sound as nice but at least I'm consistent). The cake smells as if there's liquor in it, but there isn't a drop--maybe it's the fruit and spice I'm smelling, or even the molasses.

The cake has a very mild flavor--it tastes like spice cake with fruit in it. The fruit are your normal fruitcake size, not too large, not too small. This smaller cake is baked similarly to the one-pound Claxton fruitcakes, in that it was originally a larger cake that's cut into smaller loaves. The only nuts are the pecans on top, which are sort of lacquered down by an agar-corn syrup-corn starch glaze. I'm not keen on these glazes--the previous cake I reviewed had one that was more sticky and less like this one, which is a bit harder and you can sort of peel off the top like fruit leather. Sorry to be a little gross about that, but I'm not keen on glazes. It wasn't so off-putting that it kept me from eating the cake.

The flavor, as I touched upon previously, is really like a moist spice cake with fruit in it. I can see why there is a following for this fruitcake: because it's really quite different than either the heavy, boozy monastery fruitcakes, or the candy-like, nut-filled fruitcakes. It's much lighter, and if someone grew up with this as their definition of fruitcake, they might very well be appalled by the others and miss their relatively easy-going, likable cake.

This is not a cake that I would seek out. That being said, it's not unlikeable, and I won't be throwing it away. It's almost like a Christmas coffeecake--much more approachable than the other types of fruitcakes, and one to put into the "fruitcake for beginners" category I've mentioned in the past. So I've put it there--in the Other category, but notice that it's at the bottom.

If there are any Canadians reading this, I'd love to know if you know who actually makes these (they're distributed by A&P), and any other thoughts on the love (or dislike) of fruitcake in Canada. Because Canada has a closer relationship to England in some ways, there might be more of a tradition of Christmas cake.

14 December 2008

Glögg: Liquid Fruitcake?

Have you ever had glögg? It's a Scandinavian drink, similar to a mulled wine but a bit thicker and sweeter. It contains all kinds of booze, sugar, fruit (normally raisins), almonds, spices. It's like liquid fruitcake. And perhaps (sigh) this is why a lot of people don't like it. I mean, I can understand that--a lot of people don't really drink warm alcoholic drinks, and it is mighty strong and sweet--a lot different, say, than a Miller Lite. But it is a really wonderful thing on a cold night. Cures what ails you.

A lot of people just haven't tried it. In Chicago, you can find it at Simon's in Andersonville. A couple of recipes here and here are similar to the glögg I've had--my ex-father-in-law made it with a similar recipe, and it was delicious. Skål!!

06 December 2008

Last fruitcake of the season

. . . or is it? I took my own (actually, Gethsemani Farms') advice and bought one more fruitcake before the holidays. This time, I chose a mass-produced one that has what I gather to be a rather cultish following: A&P's Jane Parker fruitcake. Of course I bought the dark version.

If the mention of this elicits joy and fond childhood memories, and you've been wondering where to buy them, click that link--it will take you right there. A quick web search found all kinds of fond memories of these. Well, if you've read this blog at all, you know my feelings about any kind of mass-produced version--that is, those cakes made by a larger, commercial bakery. But once again, I will try this one with an open mind, and certainly with respect for people's fond memories of a fruitcake.

The ones I really want to buy--the ones I've been coveting--are these. So beautiful. So expensive. Has anyone tried those? *sigh*. Ah well. There's always next year.

05 December 2008

No . . . it's NOT TOO LATE!

. . . for Christmas delivery. At least that's what the latest catalog from the Abbey of Gethsemani tells me. The third catalog from them that I've received, by the way. At least three each from Holy Cross Abbey, the Wisconsin Cheeseman, Hickory Farms, and Collins Street. At least one from Harry and David. I'm awash in them.

I do dearly love the Abbey of Gethsemani, but their catalog is a bit funny. It makes me think of Taco Bell, a bit. Taco Bell always seems to be coming out with a new food item, but it's really just a re-combination of beans, meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese sauce, and hard and/or soft tortillas. The Gethsemani (and actually, the Sausage'n' Cheese places, too) catalog takes all their products (Gethsemani offers fabulous fudge and yummy cheese, too) and combines and recombines them. A half fruitcake with a half wheel of cheese. A full fruitcake with a half wheel of cheese. A whole wheel of cheese with a full fruitcake. A full fruitcake with a full wheel of cheese with fudge. A half fruitcake with . . . you get the picture.

And why not, really-- I'm sure the variations bring them more money. But it only takes a couple flips of the pages for me to start getting frustrated. OK, all I really want is half a fruitcake and some if-I-eat-one-more-piece-I'll-catch-a-buzz Bourbon fudge. What page is it on? Will they have a quarter wheel of cheese thrown in with it?

Ah, catalogs. At least I haven't gotten another English muffin catalog again. They know when to stop.

Review: Holy Spirit Monastery Fruitcake

I don't know who this Brother Basil is, but he makes a damn fine fruitcake.

One of my commenters suggested the fruitcake from the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia. I bought the 2-pound round fruitcake in a tin for $27.95 and shipping, for a total price of $34.89. Here it is:

Notice the little message about Brother Basil and his kitchen. The tin arrives with a cardboard cover around it:

Unfortunately, I threw that cardboard cover away, and darn if it didn't have the list of ingredients on it. Really sorry about that, but I don't have the exact ingredients. According to their website, the fruit they use in it include "peaches, pineapple, raisins, dates and cherries". The nuts? Pecans. And the liquor includes peach brandy and sherry.

From what I remember from the discarded cardboard thingy, this cake did contain a couple not-so-lovely ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and perhaps some preservatives. But the flavor didn't show it too much. They do something to the top of this fruitcake, however, that I really don't like. They put some kind of glaze on the top to make it very shiny and finished looking. That's why my photo is kind of dull; I had to take it without a flash, because with flash, all you would have seen was the glare of this shiny glaze. Anyway, what the glaze does is make the top very gooey and sticky, which I found unappealing. I managed to work my way around that, though, because I really liked the flavor of this fruitcake.

The consistency of the cake is very similar to my favorite--need I even mention which one that is anymore? There was enough cake in the mix so you could both see and taste it. The peach brandy and sherry gave it a lovely rich flavor, and even though it has raisins in it, which I tend to hate, they were offset by a really nice mixture of all your basic fruitcake food groups--cherries, pineapple, etc.

So now I have to rate it, or at least rank it, huh? Sigh. I wish I had a slice of each one of the monastery fruitcakes I've eaten in front of me right now. They are all so good, containing such good ingredients and having such good flavor, and now I'm having trouble even remembering what they tasted like.

OK, well, since it's my blog, I'm going to bump all of them down one and put this one in second place. It did taste really good.

It could also be that I haven't been getting to the grocery story much lately so I've been really hungry each time I cut into it, and so have been treating it more as a meal than a dessert. I mean, I don't want to denigrate it at all, and its number 2 position is earned: I liked the flavor of this cake. I just wonder how much hunger affects how much I enjoy a fruitcake. Perhaps a subject for another post. But really, who am I kidding? Nothing, not even hunger, could get me past the flavor of some of the nasty ones.

So there you go. Thanks, anonymous commenter--you've pointed me to a goody. Holy Spirit Monastery at number 2. Just don't get it if you don't like shiny goo on the top of your cake.

UPDATE: from customer service, here are the ingredients: Pecans, Pineapple, Cherries, Dates, Sherry Wine, Butter, Eggs, Enriched Wheat Flour, Raisins, Peach Brandy, Sugar, Honey, Invert Sugar, Corn Syrup, Almond Paste, Contains 1% or Less of Locust Bean Gum, Modified Corn Starch, Salt, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Calcium Propionate[ A Preservative], Sulfur Dioxide, Food Coloring [Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5], Methylcellulose Gum.

20 November 2008

The price of fruitcake in America

Prepare for the shock of your life: mass-produced fruitcakes are not the best value.

I know. Shocking, isn't it? How can I keep this revelation quiet? I feel the need to shout it from the rooftops: AVOID THOSE MASS-PRODUCED FRUITCAKES, PEOPLE!

They make it so easy, don't they, those cakes sitting there at the check-out, or that nice photo right next to the Humongous Basket o' Sausage 'n' Cheese in the catalog. It's a nice looking fruitcake, you think, gee, hmmm, that tin looks pretty, and I need to send a little something to Aunt Gladys. Let me tell you, Aunt Gladys won't write you into the will if you send her that--plus, you're spending more money than you need to on something that just isn't good. And Gladys will probably feed the fruitcake to Peaches, her heavy-breathing little Pug dog.

I was just discussing store closings with someone the other day, and they mentioned something that I was surprised to hear. When some stores are going out of business, they hire liquidators to sell off their goods. Those liquidators sometimes come in and actually mark items up in price. People who may have previously been unfamiliar with the store will see that it's going out of business and come in and buy at that price, thinking they're getting a deal.

So in a way, those people who are unfamiliar with fruitcake (and most people are, aren't they, considering the sniggering hatred of it) are being duped in a similar way--buying something they're unfamiliar with, at a price that I feel is too high for the quality.

Now, in fairness, I was just reviewing my spreadsheet of fruitcake prices again, and upon further review, the Grandma's and Swiss Colony fruitcakes are down towards the less expensive fruitcakes. But Hickory Farms and Wisconsin Cheeseman add a lot of shipping to their fruitcakes, which affects the per-pound price quite a bit--a whopping $10-$12 dollars is what I had to pay to ship to the middle of the country. And isn't Wisconsin in the middle of the country? I probably could have spent less than $10 in gas driving up there to pick it up. Our Lady of Guadalupe had the highest shipping cost for me, as I mentioned in the previous post, and even then it was still a good value because it was three-pound cake.

But as I look at the spreadsheet overall, the monastery fruitcakes tend to be at or below the average price, while the mass-produced and Southern were at or above the average. There was a range of about $14 between the cheapest (Guadalupe) and most expensive (Swiss Colony three-pack) without shipping. With shipping included, the cheapest was Gethsemani (shipping included) while the most expensive was Wisconsin Cheeseman ($10 shipping).

One caveat I want to add here: your results may vary. For some of these sites, I had to go almost all the way to a purchase to find out shipping, and I hope I was able to capture who had shipping and who didn't, but I may not have been the most precise.

Here are the cakes that did not charge for shipping: Assumption, Claxton, Gethsemani, Grandma's, Old Cavendish, and Swiss Colony.

By the way, a couple of the sites were quite annoying when it came to purchasing: Southern Supreme, Swiss Colony, and Wisconsin Cheeseman have all been noted as "annoying purchasing" on my spreadsheet. That can mean one of two things: I had to create a login ID and password to purchase anything on the site; or I had to get all the way to the point where I entered credit card information before I could see what the final total was going to be, including shipping. Those both classify as "annoying" in my on-line purchasing opinion.

OK, kids, you're educated consumers now. Go buy fruitcake!!

13 November 2008

What's a fruitcake worth?

Are you awash in fruitcake catalogs? I am. Funny how that is. I've received at least three to four different catalogs so far this season, as well as this English muffin weirdness--I'm still tempted, but I just don't know who I know who would want English muffins that much.

Anyway, the strange thing is that just about every fruitcake company has sent me not one, but two or more catalogs. I normally do my purchasing on the web, so these catalogs are quickly perused, then tossed into the recycle bin. But I feel sad, almost guilty, when I get the catalogs from the monasteries. I'm guessing these guys aren't awash in money like the guys selling sausage, so I just feel bad that they're wasting their postage and paper on me. Sigh. I guess I can see what I can do about being taken off their mailing lists.

Anyway, enough of that rather boring ramble. Today's message is for all of you who want to know the cost of these fruitcakes without having to peruse each review. Actually, perusing each review (which I recommend, drives up those website hits, thanks!) is a good way to learn about the taste, etc., of the fruitcake, but what about the cost? What's the best value overall? Do you even care about value when it comes to fruitcake?

Well, I think everyone buying a fruitcake should consider the flavor that they prefer first; the quality of ingredients second; but also how much you want to pay, of course. So I did a cost comparison of each of the fruitcakes I reviewed, and I found some shocking, yes shocking revelations about cost.

First, a couple of caveats: my reviews might have some old prices in them, depending on when they were posted. When I went back to check prices, a couple of the fruitcakes had gone up in price, one (Gethsemani Farms) as much as $4. Also, my comparisons are a bit apples to oranges. Many of the fruitcakes were in the 2-2.5 pound range, but I had a couple that were 1-1.5 pounds and one, Swiss Colony, was a collection of three, so it's a little hard to compare. For a couple of those, like the Wisconsin Cheeseman and aforementioned Swiss Colony, I went back to their site and found a standard 2-ish pound cake and got the cost and shipping there.

I fired up my spreadsheet software and compiled the following for each fruitcake: the cost; the shipping fee, if any; the total amount paid; the weight of the cake; and then I divided both the cake cost, and the cake cost plus shipping, by the weight of the cake to get the price per pound, or "value," I shall call it.

I'm not going to enumerate each column of info in this post; I'll just make a few observations and list a few highlights.

First, monastery fruitcakes are still a good value. Yes, even including shipping and the cost of their better quality ingredients, Gethsemani, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Assumption were at the top of the list in value. Even the one with the highest cost to poundage ratio, Holy Cross, was still near the average value of the fruitcakes.

So what is the average cost per pound for the fruitcakes I've reviewed so far? It's $14.83 per pound without shipping; $17.48 per pound with shipping included. Shipping is the real wacky part of all of this; there are quite a few companies that include shipping in the cost of the cake, while others don't. So I've paid $0 to a whopping $12.32 for shipping (Guadalupe). I'm in the middle of the country, in the cold Middle West, so you can gauge accordingly.

I'll leave you to gnaw on those nuggets for a bit. I'll reveal more of my fruitcake data mining in another post.

07 November 2008

Next Fruitcake: Monastery of the Holy Spirit

The fruitcake season is well upon us again; heck, if the stores are any indication, the holiday season has been here since before Halloween. Thanks to an anonymous reader who suggested the next fruitcake, another monastery one. This time it's a place in Georgia, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.

I guess I should be doing another mass-produced or other fruitcake . . . but I couldn't help it, it's soaked in peach brandy. Will it make a difference? Stay tuned . . .

23 October 2008

Review: Mary of Puddin Hill Pecan Fruitcake

I bought the 1.5 pound pecan fruitcake for $23.95 plus shipping and handling, which ended up being $30.90. Here’s the box it comes in:

Here’s the loaf: it comes in a pan that looks like the type that they can bake it in; it’s cardboard (although silver on the outside and nice looking, as cardboard goes). They also have larger cakes; the 2- and 3-pound cakes come in tins.

One of the best things about this cake is that it comes with its own storage bag and twist tie. What a great idea! Fruitcake is not something most people eat at one sitting (no, me neither), and I think that including this bag shows some nice knowledge of the customer and concern for the quality of their fruitcake.

I purchased the pecan fruitcake, but they also have variations with walnuts, apricots, and other combinations. The very first ingredient on their list is pecans, followed by dates, pineapples, cherries, sugar, wheat, eggs, and baking powder. That’s it. By the way, the pineapples are processed with turmeric—that could be why several fruitcakes have turmeric listed. Not sure. But a very fine ingredients list, I must say, and I really feel it is reflected in the quality and flavor of this cake.

I am not a big fan of Southern style fruitcakes, because I like my alcohol. As usual, this one doesn’t include it. But the flavor of this cake is really nice. First, you have to like nuts, because that really is almost all it is. The cake batter is actually very difficult to find, and in effect the cake is very candy-like in consistency, almost praline-like because of the abundance of pecans. The chunks of fruit (including my favorite, the date) add a little novelty to the heavy nut flavor. This cake has a very clean, fresh, home-made flavor. It’s not goopy; doesn’t taste carmelized; even the candied fruit tastes fresh and is neither hard nor gluey. There are no off flavors. Make no mistake, this is plenty sweet, though.

This goes right to the top of my Southern fruitcake list. It truly stands out because of the quality of the ingredients, the freshness, and the flavor. The cost is certainly justified—have you seen how much nuts cost lately?

Reviewing this one makes me feel a little bad about the Collin Street fruitcake review I did when I was just starting out and didn’t know my Southern style fruitcakes from any other kind. Until recently, they were at the top of my list of Southern style fruitcakes, but they really deserve to be dethroned by this one. It’s a goody.

UPDATE: Since this review, Mary of Puddin Hill has shut down operations. See updates here (read the comments, too).

21 September 2008

New, improved sidebar!

A very slight change, I know, but I hope it will make ratings and reviews more clear to the fruitcake-buying public. My list of fruitcakes eaten and rated had become rather long and ungainly: that's a lot of calories, my friends, I have consumed, saving the overwhelmed fruitcake-buyer from unwise purchases. So I've broken up the list into four separate lists, based on the categories I've come up with to define, in general terms, the fruitcakes I review. I'll give a brief overview of each here, but also see this post for more information.

  • Monastery fruitcakes: fruitcakes made exclusively by Catholic religious orders (Trappists, Benedictines, etc). My personal favorite, these are usually made with a minimum of artificial ingredients and have a rich flavor due to lots of preserved fruit and alcohol in the batter. They also might use darker sweeteners like brown sugar.

  • Southern-style fruitcakes: these almost never contain alcohol and focus a lot on nuts, like walnuts or pecans. They tend to be from bakeries in the US South, like Texas or Georgia. You might see just a few more shortcut ingredients like margarine, high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives, but not a lot. These often are almost candy-like, with batter being used primarily to hold all the ingredients together. As of this post, the number one spot is not filled in: that's because I have a new number one in this category, Mary of Puddin Hill, which I will review very soon. After I eat more of it.

  • "Other" fruitcakes: Notice that the fruitcakes there are not numbered. That's because I'm not really comparing them to one another. These are one-offs, and I'd recommend them for people not that into fruitcake. They have slightly non-traditional flavorings or ingredients (like a bit of cinnamon in the Harry and David cake, and dried fruit in the Cavendish), which might make them a bit more accessible to those not into the more hardcore fruitcakes above. So far, I have two on the list, and I liked them both. I'll need to review another one like this soon.

  • Mass-produced fruitcakes: Avoid all of these. OK, I'll say a bit more. I fear that these are the ones that give fruitcake a bad name. Most of these come very nicely packaged, with beautiful tins, etc. But these also have the worst ingredient lists: stocked full of high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, preservatives, turnips (no, really), and other unpleasantness. And it shows in their flavor: too sweet, strange textures, just really nasty. And remember, I like fruitcake.

So, there you go. I hope these lists makes things a bit more clear.

I certainly didn't know when I first began this folly that there were actually different types of fruitcake. Ah, how naive I was then--three years younger, and a few pounds thinner.

And to answer another common question: no, I'm never going to make my own fruitcake. Why should I, when so many other people already have?

28 July 2008

Review: Grandma’s Bake Shoppe Original Fruit & Nut Cake

. . . aka Krema Products, aka Beatrice Bakery, aka Big Baking Conglomerate. Thanks to my commenters for help figuring out who, exactly, Grandma is. I purchased this two-pound fruitcake from The Sisters Sweet Shoppe in Dublin, Ohio, but I suspect that the Sisters are a way to put a down-home, authentic feel to a mass-produced product. The product came shipped in a box from “The Sister’s Sweet Shoppe/Grandma’s/Krema/Crazy R[I think this is Crazy Richards],” so they don’t even know who they are. One of my commenters mentioned that Beatrice bakery, which is also on my list, sells a fruitcake that is identical to this product, down to the ingredients list. Thanks Anonymous, I can cross another one off my list. Anonymous actually wrote a great, informative post, so I’ll include it here:

"Grandma's was my introduction to better (than Claxton or Jane Parker) fruitcake, back during Christmas of '75. Three spirits! Just like Dickens' tale. The two-pounder came in a lovely gilt, embossed box, and the aroma greeted you the moment you lifted the lid. This cake has come from everywhere. In the beginning I received it as a corporate gift, and then I ordered it from Figi's. I think it has been marketed under more than one label. Two years ago I ordered a cake from Butterfield Farms, and I declare it was a Grandma's, just repackaged. (I emailed my suspicion, but got no response.) For a brief period in the '80's the Grandma's producer, at that time Beatrice Foods in Nebraska, offered a very nice Amaretto version, delivered in an exquisite black, end-opening tin. But shortly thereafter, somebody in management decided fruitcakes were passé', and began marketing the basic product under the name "fruit and nut bar." Later still, it was back to "fruit and nut cake." And in a very plain green cardstock box, with a cellophane window. Our local purveyor of fancy Christmas foods stocked them near the front door, where the sunlight dried them out, and it was then that I realized how much syrup must be used in the production process. For several years my cakes had crunchy bits of crystallized sugar in them. By the turn of the millennium, I discovered your all-time favorite monk-made delight from Kentucky, and have tried other monastery cakes since (at your recommendation). For nostalgia's sake, I haven't forsaken Grandma's, but compared with better fruitcake it tastes very candy-like to me today. Much like our local favorite Southern Supreme, except with the spirits. Stay hopeful as you try this one, but not too . . ."

I agree with you, A. Anyway, the cake cost $25.95, with free UPS shipping. It comes in a very pretty tin:

That’s probably the best thing I can say about this fruitcake. As mass-produced fruitcakes go, it ranks at the top of the pack, but there are a whole bunch of other fruitcakes I would recommend before this one.

The cake itself is extremely light-colored, one of the lightest colored cakes I’ve come across (maybe it has something to do with ordering it in July, but I don’t think so):

Raisins, cherries, and pineapple are the fruits, while walnuts, pecans, and almonds are the nuts. It also contains three liquors: brandy, rum, and bourbon. With all of the aforementioned ingredients, one would think this one has a chance of tasting good. Well, the ingredients previously mentioned are offset by corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, many preservatives, and our buddy, turmeric. The cake has an uncooked batter flavor to it—very sweet. In any case, it still doesn’t taste all that great. The texture of the cake itself was similar to the Gethsemani Farms cake, and compared to the previous Hermitage Big Sur fruitcake, it was much lighter. I liked the texture, but texture alone can not redeem a fruitcake. I think that the three liquors gives this cake a slight edge up on the mass-produced fruitcakes that don’t contain any alcohol, but it still just doesn’t taste good.

At least there are no turnips.

06 July 2008

Cute little Swiss fruitcakes

So I was recently in Switzerland and stumbled upon a couple of fruity baked things. One is called Läckerli Früchtebrot, and it's an older brother to these cookies that I had mentioned previously. It really was a loaf-shaped incarnation of the cookies, a bit moister but tasting the same. The loaf was very thinly sliced, and contained the same things as the cookies, including the Kirsch. It was quite delicious--I love Läckerli, so to have it in a bit moister fruitcake format was a wonderful thing.

While in Switzerland, I went with a friend to a small town called Sent in the Graubünden area. It's a beautiful area, with high mountains, steep valleys, cows and goats, and in the town of Sent, a local specialty called Bündner Birnbrot. This really wasn't a cake so much as a bread, as its name suggests (the brot part). It was a yeast bread, but it was chock full of dried fruit and fruitcake spices, as well as whole hazelnuts, which was really cool. The closest thing I could liken it to was either the batter in a stollen (minus any fillings and powdered sugar), or a closer resemblance was the Ami de Fromage bread at Red Hen here in Chicago. Man, Red Hen has to have the worst web site for such a successful operation. I guess their reputation precedes them and they don't really need a good website.

So, it's 84 degrees here, and that gets me thinking about only one thing: fruitcake. Time for the next one. Since I've just done a monastery one, let's move on to a mass-produced one. The next one will be Grandma's fruitcake, chosen because Grandma (aka the Krema group, the baking conglomerate that creates them) hails from Dublin, OH, close to Delaware, home of the Little Brown Jug. Check it out--the most interesting county fair ever. According to the Krema site, there are three different types of liquor in the fruitcake--so they've got that going for them. Here's hoping (against hope) that this cake doesn't disappoint.

(Also, check out these chicks from the Krema site--I mean, look at them. I'm speechless).

09 June 2008

Review: Hermitage Big Sur Fruitcake

I ordered a 3 pound (!) loaf from the Hermitage Big Sur Bakery, associated with the New Camaldoli Hermitage, for the total cost of $38.91 with shipping. The packaging is quite eco-friendly looking and no tins are available:

And here’s a look at the loaf itself—unassuming and hefty, though not very elegant:

I believe they do a final dip into brandy before they ship it to you—it was very moist when it arrived, but has been getting less so as I’ve had it in my fridge. Let me tell you, three pounds is a lot to get through—I’ve had a few pieces but the rest are in the freezer.

This is a very good fruitcake, but there’s something in it that’s not my favorite. I may have identified the two culprits—raisins and walnuts. I’m not a big fan of raisins—I don’t like the sweet, grapey flavor that they add to, well, frankly, any dish they’re put into. Walnuts are a fine nut for eating, but they are a little bitter and although I don’t mind them in a cookie, I prefer pecans in my fruitcake.

That being said, if you don’t mind either of these, you’ll like this fruitcake. Ingredients include the standard “fruit mix,” as defined in the ingredients as cherries, pineapple, and citrus peels. There are margarine and vegetable gums but nothing else too bad in the ingredients, and on the good side, there are two alcohols listed—wine and brandy.

There are dates in this cake, which I normally like, but I think they are overpowered by the raisin flavor. The fruit was in pretty large chunks, and there was (yay!) a pronounced alcohol flavor to the cake. As mentioned earlier, it was very moist when I first received it, which was nice.

Let’s talk about a flavor in this cake that I call “burnt.” I think what I might be tasting is carmelization of the raisins in the batter. I checked the last two posts where I mention this burnt element, and both cakes contain raisins. It’s not my favorite flavor in a fruitcake, but apparently it’s not so off-putting that I’ve stopped eating the cake.

So in conclusion, this is not the most elegant cake I’ve purchased—it doesn’t come in a tin, and it’s a loaf, not round, shape. But it’s a nice, large, moist loaf with a very good flavor--if you don’t mind raisins--and I’d say it’s a good value.

08 June 2008

Coming soon -- Swiss fruitcake!!

No, the last fruitcake didn't kill me--I've just been pretty busy preparing for a trip. I'm posting from the Zurich airport right now, and I have two cute little fruitcake type things I bought here in Switzerland nestled in my luggage right now. When I get back and get settled I have the previous fruitcake to review, then will talk a bit about these two. Fruitcakes aren't hard to find in Switzerland, evidently--certainly not in the Germanic part. It's part of their heritage, you know. I certainly wasn't seeking them out, I just happened upon them. At any rate, will post again soon. Tschuss!!

03 May 2008

The next fruitcake's name is:

Thanks for the votes. I was leaning towards Holy Transfiguration Skete, and I still think I'll do that one, but I'm going to leave it to the end. They have a sampler that includes all six cakes that they create. Since four of their cakes are variations on fruitcake (traditional, dried fruit, sourdough, and Jamaican black, which a past commenter had brought to my attention), and the sampler contains one-pound versions of each, it seems like a good way to go. However, I don't feel like footing out the $80 to order it just yet. I think I'll leave that one to the bitter end, when we're more in the real fruitcake season--you know, the time of year when normal people order fruitcake. Six cakes at once--that might be the death of me.

In any case, I've decided on a write-in cake from commenter Brian: the fruitcake from Hermitage Big Sur bakery, from the Camaldolese Benedictine monks in Big Sur, California. First, it's a monastery fruitcake, always a favorite; second, it's only one fruitcake, not six; and third, I covet their location. Really, this is where they're located (from their website): "The Hermitage is located at Lucia, off the Pacific Coast Highway, (Highway 1) about 25 miles south of Big Sur village, 55 miles south of Monterey, and 85 miles north of San Luis Obispo." These monks picked a beautiful place to live.

It's on order. I was touched by how my order was completed; after the credit card information was finalized, you're taken to a page that shows the monks praying, with the message "The monks are prayerfully grateful for your order." Y'know, they're prayerful guys--why not reflect that prayerfulness in everything, even your e-commerce website?

28 April 2008

(tap tap) Is this thing on?

(brushes cobwebs off the keyboard) Hi everybody! Well it's getting to be that time of year--fruitcake season is beginning soon. At least it is for me. Can you believe I still have at least 15 commercial fruitcakes to review?

I'd like to start with my first order in May. However, frankly, I'm not in the mood to pick my first one. So I'm going to leave it up to you, my faithful readers, to pick one for me to review first. I've listed below the ones I have on my list. Please put your preference in the comments section. And write-ins are welcome, too!!

Monastery of the Holy Spirit
Mary of Puddin Hill
Butterfield Farms
Holy Transfiguration Skete