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.