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.

04 December 2013

The dynamic vicissitudes of the fruitcake business

An alert reader brought to my attention that when you attempt to go to the Georgia Fruitcake Company's website, it no longer exists. I am assuming (but am absolutely not positive) that the company doesn't exist, but I haven't checked this. Anyone have any updates?

On the good side, however, Mary of Puddin Hill is back in business, so I have done the swaperoo on my favorite southern fruitcake in the fruitcake ratings and in the sidebar, listing Georgia Fruitcake (RIP) at the bottom of the Southern-style fruitcakes and pushing Mary of Puddin Hill back up to the top.

In other news, I have received the June Taylor fruitcake for review, which I will do once I finish eating all of the fruitcake from the tasting, so perhaps by this weekend. I have been enjoying delicious homemade fruitcake every morning this week (and sometimes in the evening, too). This is not doing good things to my waistline, but doing wonderful things to my sense of well-being.

01 December 2013

The Fruitcake Tasting!

Look at these lovely people! These were some of the people baking (and eating) the fruitcakes from Friday's fruitcake tasting. Every single cake was delicious, and the types of cakes really ran the gamut. I'll post links to the recipes once I have them, but I can give you a run-down of the types of cakes we had. The one theme? They were all delicious--seems like most home-made cakes are!

The two loaves on the iron stand in back were both more traditional loaves--full of candied and dried fruit that had been macerated in alcohol, along with rich cake that was dark from brown sugar or molasses. The cake to the far left was very similar (or might even be) a type of cake called Bishop's bread. It was delicious, but we all questioned if it really qualified as a "fruitcake."  It did indeed contain fruit: cherries and figs, I believe, as well as nuts (pecans, I think). But the addition of CHOCOLATE CHIPS made it deliciously sweet and decadent. It was hands down the winner in the "which is the easiest cake to eat and enjoy" category. 

The other two (the other loaf and the cute cake in the heart pan) both contained fruit, mostly dried, and both tasted more like a quick bread. The one that was loaf-shaped was flavored with cinnamon and had a similar spice profile to a banana bread. They were both quite yummy tasting; however, the heart-shaped one was a bit dry, which we determined may have been because it was baked in that pan, which may have caused there to be a bit more evaporation. It was still delicious; perhaps it could have used a bit of a dousing of rum or whiskey (always good in my book). 

Finally, that very powdery white blob in the lower center was the panforte I made. The panforte is really more like a candy than a cake: it contains similar ingredients to a fruitcake, just in different proportions: sugar, honey, flour, candied fruit, hazelnuts, and almonds. The tasters likened it to a Payday bar, but with fruit - very gooey and a crowd pleaser--I think everyone enjoyed it. 

So that's the condensed version of the fruitcake tasting. I realize this is all very frustrating if you don't have the recipes, so I've posted a couple of the links below, and will post more as I get them. These two recipes are for the loaves on the iron rack: