27 December 2012

Review: Robert Lambert Winter Fruitcake

My fruitcake-disliking husband bought the Robert Lambert Winter Fruitcake for me for my birthday. At $55 for one small cake, this is quite a statement of love. As you all know, I really enjoyed the white fruitcake that Robert Lambert makes, so was intrigued to see if there was an appreciable difference. I had recently re-tasted the white at the fruitcake tasting a little while back, so the memory was still fresh in my mind when I cut into this one.

Here's what the Winter fruitcake looks like:

And now unwrapped:
A slightly different garnish, but very cute all the same. And here it is in its nude glory:

The difference between this cake and the White is that it focuses primarily on dried fruit except for glacéed apricots, and also includes tropical fruit juices, cardamom, and cinnamon. Perusing the ingredient list, that juice is guava/peach, and the dried fruit are pineapple, nectarines, and cherries (as well as white raisins). You have quite a few different peels in this cake: Rangpur lime, Meyer lemon, blood orange, and grapefruit. Just as with the White, there is coconut, which adds a distinctive flavor and texture (some might call it hairy but it doesn't bother me). Four kinds of nut: pecans, almonds, walnuts, and Brazil nuts, the latter chopped rather largely. By the way, I have been corresponding with Robert and he said that he often will blanch his walnuts as a way to remove a bit of that bitter taste you can sometimes get from that nut. So bakers, take note.

And on to the taste: delicious. This one might even beat the White cake, in my opinion, because of these delicious pops of acidic freshness you get from the dried cherries and that tropical juice. My fruitcake-disliking husband even tried a bite and agreed that it is a tasty breakfast quick bread. The crumb is very much a poundcake-like crumb, rather moist and with a non-cloying sweetness.

I tried a slice of this in a fruitcake duel this morning with a slice of the Heritage Baking cake, which is also hanging out in my fridge, and the difference in sweetness is pronounced. The Lambert cake has a good balance of cake, citrusy and nutty notes, as well as the zing from the dried fruit and richness from the coconut. The Heritage Baking, on the other hand, has a very classic rich, syrupy, buttery sweetness, almost like pancakes with syrup. Neither were bad, just very different one from the other.

This very well might be my new favorite. A definite good one for foodies and someone who thinks that all fruitcakes are the same. A delicious holiday breakfast treat. But NOT for someone who is looking for the classic fruitcake taste.

19 December 2012

Review: Heritage All Butter Fruitcake

Heritage Baking Company in Ontario, Canada sent me one of their fruitcakes to review. If I had purchased it, the cost would have been $26.95 (Canadian), but the shipping to the US would have been a whopping $23.00! So if you're considering purchasing this cake and you live in the States, you may want to reflect on my description and decide whether it's worth the investment. Kristi at Heritage Baking tells me that as they see their U.S. sales increasing, they plan to renegotiate their U.S. shipping rates for 2013.

The cake I received was wrapped in a beige box with a happy seasonal ribbon.The label on the box described the contents and the ingredients:

I realize that photo might be hard to read (what else is new), but the ingredients are fairly straightforward, and do include butter. Nuts are pecans; fruits, pineapple, cherries, and raisins; and the alcohol, brandy. don't be afraid by the lengthiness of the ingredients; they are in French and English, and list out the colorings, etc., that go into the candied fruit, as we've seen in other cakes.

Here's the tin:

A bit plain but nothing wrong with that. Here's the cake out of the box:

And finally, the cake, unwrapped:


The decoration on top (pecans, green pineapple, cherries) is simply that, an applied decoration. I mean, there's pineapple, cherries, and pecans throughout, but the pineapple is not green throughout (thank God), and the pecans are good size chunks but not whole. I think there's a bit of a glaze keeping it all on the top of the cake. The glaze, unlike others I've tried, is not thick, but does manage to do the job of keeping all the decoration on top.

The cake itself has a pound-cake like crumb. There's a pretty balanced proportion of fruit to cake, meaning that there's a lot of fruit and nuts, and big chunks of them as well, but you also can see and taste the cake in each slice. Although Heritage says that they macerate their fruit in brandy, there is NOT a strong brandy note in this cake. I hardly recognized any alcohol note, though there may very well be a bit of it in the raisins.

This is a dark cake that contains brown sugar, and you might already know how I feel about raisins in my cakes, but this is not a terribly "dark" tasting cake. The scent as well as the taste is redolent of butter and a general sweet, candied flavor from the fruit. The fruit itself tastes as it should - the cherries have a Maraschino-esque flavor, and you will definitely taste the pineapple due to the large chunks.

I'm going to put this at the top of the mass-produced fruitcakes list, due to the overall quality ingredients, better than those of Yahoo, which was previously at the top of the list. It's a good value for the money, too--if you live in Canada, where shipping is only $11. For those of us Stateside, you may want to find something within our border that will meet your fruitcake needs, but for those of you in Canada, you could consider this if you want a good fruitcake at a nice price.

At times I feel like I'm getting soft on mass-produced fruitcakes. But I shouldn't prejudge a cake simply because it goes into my "mass-produced" category, should I? I think that after all these years and having tried at least 31 different fruitcakes, I've simply found a few good mass-produced ones.

à chacun son goût.

09 December 2012

Recipe review: Fiona Cairns Rich Tamarind Fruitcake

As I mentioned in my previous post on the fruitcake tasting, my friend Laura's contribution to the event was a homemade fruitcake using the Fiona Cairns' recipe. You can see the beautiful results below; my friend Laura is an excellent baker and, evidently, food stylist, as she made the cake look gorgeous.

This recipe is definitely for a dark fruitcake, similar to what I call Monastery fruitcakes on my ratings page. Reviewing the recipe, you'll see that it contains molasses and brown sugar, and, in a surprising twist, tamarind concentrate. I have some of this in my house, but have never used it for baking; rather, I use it for cooking Indian food:

Tamarind paste brings a sour, fruity note to food. I know that may not sound terribly pleasant, but it's an essential component of Indian cooking, used to offset heat or sweetness, really just as a counterpoint to the other flavors going on. And I feel it's an essential component to the deliciousness of this cake. Because it was, indeed, delicious.

Here's a slice of the cake:

It contains cherries, currants, and gold and dark raisins, as well as walnuts and almonds, well distributed throughout the cake. The cake itself is rich and spicy, containing almond flour, orange, and lemon peel as well as crystallized ginger, all adding to the complexity of the flavor. Plain ginger would add one note, I think, but crystallized ginger adds a flavor and a texture that steps it up a notch. Laura tells me she followed the recipe faithfully (as she does any time she tries a recipe the first time), but admits that she may have rolled just a bit more crystallized ginger into the mix. I don't care--I can eat crystallized ginger like candy.

A strange ingredient in this recipe, I think, is "apple pie spice." It just seems very un-British. Basically, it's cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger. I guess I'm a spice snob, and prefer to have my spices individually named. Interestingly, though, "apple pie spice" describes a specific flavor profile, different, say, from "pumpkin pie spice," which contains cloves. So there you have it -- you have an apple pie spice profile in this cake, augmented with the citrus rind and crystallized ginger.

And of course, there's booze -- brandy (Laura used cognac). The fruit is macerated in the brandy, along with the tamarind paste, which will definitely impart a different flavor to the fruit than if it were just soaked in brandy alone. And after baking, of course, the cake was fed with brandy. The cake we tried was a young cake--only about a week old.

Before I get into the taste of the cake, I should call out one other unique ingredient - bitter orange marmalade. Yup, in addition to the orange peel, lemon peel, oh, and I forgot, there's mixed candied peel in there as well, which Laura said she bought from King Arthur Flour. It was a challenge for Laura just to collect all these ingredients, and I've heard that from other fruitcake bakers--maybe that's why there are so many commercially-made fruitcakes. People just give up! Anyway, back to the marmalade, just another addition to the macerated fruit which imparts another layer of complexity to the flavor of the cake.

On to the flavor. This cake was delicious. It reminded me of a salted caramel, a combination of richness, sweetness, and a spice/salty edge. The scent was boozy, sweet, spicy. The cake was moist but not wet, rich, and sweet. There was this note of spicy, buttery saltiness to it. Again, I know that sounds weird, and let me assure you it tasted like sweet fruitcake, but that additional note, just like the salt on a caramel, enhances the underlying sweetness and makes it that much more delicious.

What can I attribute this note to? I think it's a combination of the crystallized ginger and the tamarind paste. The crystallized ginger imparts a warm spiciness when you hit a piece. Worcestershire sauce also contains tamarind paste, and it's often used to add a deep savoriness (maybe one would call it umami?) to dishes. I think that tamarind imparts a certain je ne sais quoi to this cake, which makes all the difference.

And yeah, I went there - referring to Worcestershire sauce when talking about a fruitcake. I don't know if that comment will win any fruitcake converts. But regardless, this is a fabulous cake recipe, which I recommend!

01 December 2012

The Fruitcake Tasting

Last night I was invited to a party with a fabulous theme: a Fruitcake Tasting! A group of friends gathered to have pizza and then finish the night with a "flight" of fruitcakes. Here's a photo of the collection:

Clockwise from lower left, we have a chunk of my wedding cake (Veda's Dundee cake); a Gethsemani Farms fruitcake; Fraters from Holy Cross Abbey; a homemade fruitcake by my friend Laura, made from Fiona Cairns' recipe for Will & Kate's wedding cake (Rich Tamarind Fruitcake); the Sunnyland Farms light and dark fruitcakes; and finally, the vintage 2011 and 2012 white fruitcakes from Robert Lambert.

Oh, and of course, it wouldn't be a party among friends without:

Fruitcake martinis! Recipe courtesy of Wegman's. They were EXTREMELY sweet, and frankly I don't recommend them with fruitcake, but they'd probably be delicious at a holiday party with savories--they actually did taste like fruitcake. (We splashed in a bit of Cointreau, which didn't hurt a bit).

We started the tasting, similar to a wine tasting,with the lighter tastes first. I suggested, since so much sweetness might quickly spoil our palates, that we start with the Robert Lambert cakes. They, as usual, were delicious. Pretty much everyone else at the party was a fruitcake noobie, but all were foodies, so this was a nice way to start--there were some comments like "I never expected a fruitcake to taste like this!" As for noting the difference between the two "vintages"--one fruitcake was actually from 2011, and is aged for a full year--I can't say we noticed a huge difference. There were some subtle differences in flavor, but nothing so striking that I would recommend one year over the other.

On to the next - I think we went to the Sunnlyand Farms light fruitcake. It was an excellent contrast to the Robert Lambert: sweet, bright, and non-alcoholic. The group really got into thinking critically about the differences, noting the differences in flavor and texture from the previous cake. One observation about this cake was that, where the Lambert cake might be nice in the morning with a cup of coffee, having an almost quick bread texture (or at least a lot more cake), the Sunnyland farms cake was much sweeter, more like a candy, and definitely more like a dessert.

And to the next (and I gotta tell you, fruitcake fatigue was already setting in): my wedding cake. The cake itself, I gotta admit, had been through a lot in the past month: it had seen three different states, a wedding, being chopped up, and had been sitting wrapped in plastic for about 3 weeks. It was still tasty and boozy, and the marzipan adds an element of richness, but the fondant was pretty tired at that point, and people found that to be a bit too sweet.

Next we got to the beauty in the middle of the table: the Fiona Cairns Rich Tamarind Fruitcake, made by my friend Laura, who is a magnificent baker. As I believe I've already noted in this blog, really, nothing beats a fresh, homemade fruitcake. We all agreed on this, and this was my personal favorite. I took a big chunk home and plan on reviewing the cake recipe in a later post. It was delicious: moist, flavorful, chunks of candied ginger, interesting spices, just really good.

Finally, running on fumes, we all took a deep breath and dove into the last one we could handle: the Gethsemani Farms fruitcake. Honestly, I think we could have stopped (hey, fruitcake is rich), but I insisted, because all the previous cakes contained cognac or brandy, and this was our first fruitcake containing bourbon.

So, sports that they are, the guests dug into one last slice. One guest immediately did NOT like it--the taste of bourbon did not suit her. Others liked it.

My conclusion from all of this? It's kind of hard tasting so many fruitcakes at once! The taste is so rich and sweet that your tongue quickly gets burnt out. At some point our conversation flowed towards what would be a good palate cleanser for a fruitcake tasting--certainly not oyster crackers! Maybe a nice dry champagne would have done the trick (or a shot of bourbon, as I suggested). All the same, I think it was really fun trying different fruitcakes, comparing and contrasting, and I would guess that, although I might not have created any fruitcake addicts, I think we definitely had some fruitcake converts, or, if nothing else, some people who could at least defend the fruitcake's right to exist.

You may have noticed that there were a couple of fruitcakes that went uneaten--the Sunnyland farms dark and the Fraters. Yup, we just couldn't--fruitcake satiation. The Fraters were nice parting gifts for everyone, and I suspect the Sunnyland dark will be enjoyed by Sherry, the hostess, along with the remnants of all the rest of the fruitcakes. I have to say that the "after" photo of the table looked very similar to the "before" photo--we were eating very skinny slices, and there was a lot of fruitcake left over.

I happily left the party with chunks of a couple of the cakes, and I look forward to reviewing the Fiona Cairns recipe very soon. Thanks Sherry and all the fruitcake tasting guests for the good food and conversation--we may have short-term fruitcake burnout, but at least it was from some good tasting cakes!