09 December 2014

Laura's Stollen recipe

My friend Laura, who is an excellent baker, made the stollen we enjoyed at our fruitcake tasting. She cobbled and jiggered (I suppose you could say "stole," ha-ha) stollen recipes from the New York Times and Slate to create her own recipe, aptly named Frankenstein Stollen. Here it is!!

Frankenstein Stollen

1 cup golden raisins
1 cup dried cherries
1 cup candied orange peel
1 cup chopped crystallized ginger
1 cup sliced or slivered almonds
3/4 cup orange liqueur (like Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
1 package active dry yeast (1/4 ounce)
1/2 cup milk, at room temperature
4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
2 3/4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped and reserved
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup chopped candied ginger
1/2 cup mixed candied citrus peel (optional, see note)
2 cups confectionerssugar.

1. The night before baking, mix golden raisins, dried cherries, candied orange peel, crystallized ginger, slivered almonds and orange liqueur in a small container. Cover and let sit overnight at room temperature.
2. The next day, in an electric mixer with paddle, set on low speed, mix yeast with milk until dissolved. Add 1 cup flour and mix until a soft, sticky dough forms, about 2 minutes. This is the starter.Transfer starter to a lightly greased bowl, cover with greased plastic, and let rest for 40 minutes at room temperature.
3. In an electric mixer with paddle and set on low speed, mix remaining 3 cups of flour, 3 tablespoons of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, lemon zest and vanilla seeds. With motor running, pour in 1 cup melted butter. Mix on slow for 1 minute, then add egg yolk. Mix until liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute more.
4. Divide starter dough into 3 pieces. Add starter to mixture in bowl, 1 piece at a time, mixing on slow until each addition is thoroughly combined, 2 to 3 minutes after each addition. After starter is absorbed, mix dough on a medium speed until glossy, 4 to 5 minutes.
5. Add fruits and almonds, and mix on slow until combined, 4 to 6 minutes.
6. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until fruit and nuts are inside dough rather than stuck on surface, and dough is smooth and glossy, about 5 minutes. Place dough in a medium bowl and cover with plastic. Rest for 1 hour to let rise slightly. Then knead it once or twice, cover with plastic and let rest for another hour.
7. Divide into 2 equal pieces and shape each into an oval loaf about 8 inches long. Stack 2 rimmed baking sheets on top of each other, lining top pan with parchment. Place loaves on doubled pans and cover with plastic. Allow loaves to rest 1 more hour at room temperature.
8. About 20 minutes before this rise is completed, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove plastic covering loaves and bake for about 1 hour. Loaves should look uniformly dark golden brown and internal temperature taken from middle of each loaf should be 190 degrees.
9. Meanwhile, whisk together the remaining 3/4 cup sugar and 2 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger. When stollen is done, transfer top pan holding loaves to a wire rack (leave stollen on pan). While still hot, brush stollen with remaining 1 cup of melted butter, letting butter soak into loaves. Sprinkle ginger sugar on tops and sides of loaves. When loaves are completely cool, cover loosely with waxed or parchment paper or foil and let sit at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight.
10. The next day, sift 1 1/2 cups confectionerssugar over loaves, rolling to coat bottom and sides evenly with sugar. Wrap each loaf in plastic and let sit at room temperature for at least 2 days before sifting remaining 1/2 cup confectionerssugar over loaves and serving.

Yield: 2 loaves, each about 1 1/2 pounds.

07 December 2014

Fruitcake Tasting 2014

The latest homemade fruitcake tasting took placeon the 28th, and many delicious cakes were enjoyed!! This evening was a homemade only event--no commercial bakeries were included.

So here are the cakes we sampled :

(far left platter) Alton Brown's Free Range Fruitcake
(top platter) Joy of Cooking's Dark Fruitcake *
(On lower right platter, clockwise from 9 o'clock)
Alton Brown's Free Range Fruitcake (we had two)
Gourmet's The Best Fruitcake Ever
Stollen (just a tiny corner)
Fiona Cairns' Rich Tamarind Fruitcake (William & Kate's wedding cake)

Notice that quite a few of these are duplicates from last year's tasting. I guess they were good ones! They were all winners in this bunch.

Two of the guests made Alton Brown's Free Range Fruitcake, so we did a head-to-head tasting of it--and found them both to be yummy. There were slight variations between the two: one baker had soaked the cake in brandy, while the other had lightly spritzed same, and we found that the latter had a bit lighter taste because of it. So for anyone making their own, take note--adding alcohol gives the cake a heavier character. If you don't like candied fruit, this is a good recipe for you--all dried fruits. It almost looks like a quick bread, and we agreed that a generous dollop of cream cheese and this would be a delicious breakfast bread. Perhaps for Christmas morning?

Both the Best Fruitcake Ever and Fiona Cairns' fruitcakes are stellar--full of a variety of fresh and interesting flavors, rich and delicious, and the almond extract-flavored glaze adds an extra little pop.

Now, for that asterisk above on the Dark Fruitcake: I learned while searching for the Joy of Cooking Dark Fruitcake recipe on the internet, that the recipe in my edition of the Joy of Cooking was misprinted. It was actually missing about 6 eggs! There was also too much brandy in the recipe (but can there ever be too much brandy in a recipe, I ask you). We all did remark on my cake being sunken in the middle. I attributed that to (and still attribute it to) the fact that I mistakenly baked it in 2 stacked loaf pans instead of 1, so it was more insulated than it should have been.

Regardless, it was a good fruitcake. Everyone liked it for it's markedly dark flavor, attributable to the molasses and brown sugar in the recipe. I actually found it to be a bit too dark for my taste, edging into burnt tasting (to me). Could also be the large amount of raisins in the recipe.

Some Lessons Learned from previous fruitcake tastings:

  1. Eat lightly. Our hostess ordered 2 big pizzas (from Roots--delicious!) for six people, which on an ordinary night could have easily been decimated, but people limited themselves to only a few slices, knowing that the tasting lay ahead. 
  2. Pace yourself. We enjoyed conversation for a while after dinner, ate the first round of fruitcakes, talked a bit more, than went back in for round two. This approach allowed us to clear our palates and heads so we could fully enjoy all the cakes. 
  3. Small slices! Notice the sizes of the slices we had cut above. The Free Range Fruitcake slices at top left were further cut into thirds for tasting. This is heavy stuff, and can only be fully appreciated and enjoyed when doled out in small pieces. Anything bigger and you're groaning in pain by the end of them all and might dream of fruitcake slices chasing you--which is what happened at previous tastings. 
I'll post the stollen recipe soon!

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!