Friday, November 9, 2012

The Christmas Cake Conundrum

Fruit, nuts and spices ready to marinate in bourbon for 24 hours.
In early November every year we always make our special holiday fruit cake. (“Fruit cake? Oh please, dear God, he’s not going to go on and on about this abomination, is he?”)

I’m well aware that many people are ambivalent about this creation, if not downright hostile, and I can understand that. Many fruit cakes are rather nasty – especially store bought ones. The main reason is cheap ingredients. Since these are the only example many people have been exposed to, they have a poor basis on which to form an “informed opinion”. Another problem is candied citrus rind (lemon, lime, orange) is very tart and to my mind doesn’t have a terrific flavor.

Around twenty years ago now, our good friend Sandy Lasky sent us a postcard while visiting Ireland. Knowing that I’m partial to Bushmills Irish Whiskey, she picked up a card while visiting the distillery which had a recipe for their fruit cake flavored with whiskey. It piqued our interest, so we made one that Christmas. It was pretty good, too, but as Vicki and I made our way through it over the course of a month, we discussed the flavors, what we liked and didn’t like, and made plans to experiment the following year.

Experimentation went on for nearly ten years as the Blechta Test Kitchens staff carefully swapped ingredients in and out (keeping records of what had been done) in our search to find what flavors, textures and proportions really worked for us. Some years we made two cakes with subtle differences between so we could easily make an A/B comparison. (This is also where we discovered how many people “hate” Christmas cake when we solicited responses!) In fact, we’re still experimenting: this year we decided to leave the fruit, nuts and spices “marinating” in the whiskey for a full day. An update will be available around December first as to how this may or may not have changed this year’s cake.

Covered with pecans and ready to go into the oven.
Almost everything except the amount of eggs, butter and flour has now changed from the original. We changed the almonds for walnuts and then for pecans. We eventually changed the Irish for rum, then Scotch and finally settled on Bourbon since it works so well with pecans. The candied citrus rind disappeared after only a few years and was replaced by more glacé cherries (in red and green), candied pineapple and candied ginger (Vicki’s phenomenal idea). Spices were also swapped in and out in varying proportions. The only thing outside the batter that stayed consistent throughout was the inclusion of golden raisins.

Eventually, we came up with a cake that is moist, exceptionally flavorful and keeps extremely well. As a matter of fact, I was cleaning out the back recesses of our bread drawer in late summer, found the butt end of last year’s cake, still carefully wrapped in plastic. There wasn’t much, but after unwrapping and smelling it, I tried a tiny piece. It was still excellent, if a little dry. (Many people keep wedding fruit cakes for several years to enjoy on a significant anniversary.)

We got ours done on Tuesday this week, which is slightly late for us since we like our cake to “age” for 2-3 weeks after adding the final bit of bourbon. Aging does make the cake more moist and flavorful.

All we need to add is the rest of the bourbon – and then wait!
One last thing: we do know that Jack Daniels isn’t technically bourbon, it’s the Woolsey family tipple of choice (Vicki is a Woolsey), so we use that. It has a stronger, more pronounced flavor than your typical bourbon. In our cake, it is by far the best of the various liquors we tried.

So, it’s not too late to whip up one of these fruitcakes for your holiday festivities. We usually serve thin slices with a bit of confectioner’s sugar sifted over the top and an appropriate tipple. Jack works fine, but we’ll use whatever is on hand: Scotch, Irish, even a late-harvest Reisling that Creekside Winery sometimes makes (or used to).

Give it a try and see what a good fruitcake can taste like! You may become a convert. Also, please share your fruitcake ideas and variations with everyone by using our comment section. Anti-fruitcake rants are also welcome.

Fruitcake with Pecans and Bourbon

1 cup red glacé cherries
1 cup green glacé cherries
1 cup candied pineapple
1 cup ginger preserved in syrup (pieces cut in half if large)
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup whole pecans
1½ tsp cloves
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp mace
1 lemon, juiced and rind grated
1½ cups 
Bourbon (we suggest using 
Jack Daniels)
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
4 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1. Combine all fruit, pecans, lemon juice and rind, spices and stir in half the whiskey. Cover tightly and soak overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 300° and line the long side of a 9" loaf pan with 2 thicknesses of parchment paper. (We use the ends of the parchment paper as a handle to lift the cooled cake out of the pan after loosening the ends with a knife.)

3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Now beat in the flour little by little. (If the batter begins to separate while you’re adding in the eggs, don’t despair! Simply beat in a few tablespoons of the flour.)

5. Fold the prepared fruit and nuts into the batter. Make sure the cake batter is pushed into all corners of the pan. Smooth the top. If you want, cover the top with pecan halves. We do this some years, others not.

6. Bake for 1½-2 hours or until a skewer comes out clean perfectly clean. Cool in the loaf pan.

7. Using a skewer, poke a lot of holes in the cake. Using a teaspoon or an eyedropper (I also feed Vicki like a baby bird from the eyedropper), carefully drizzle the remaining whiskey over the cake, letting it soak in. (I sometimes take the cake out to do this on the top, bottom and all sides, but you have to be more careful because the precious liquid can run off. Keeping it in the loaf pan helps contain the liquor.)

8. Wrap the cake very tightly in plastic and set aside for at least 2 weeks to let the cake age. Don’t cheat on this!


S. C. Gates said...

Hey, Rick.

I have lost my all-time favourite Christmas Cake recipe --- it was a white cake, heavy on almonds and soaked in Amaretto (It was a Chatelaine magazine recipe). Always started it on Rememberance Day.

When you say 'loaf pan', do you mean a 9" x 5" pan? Th eone in your photos looks bigger (but that could just be the photo angle).

If I were to make your cake I would likely try and make smaller loaves (to have as gifts for Xmas Cake lovers). How would you adjust the baking time?

Rick Blechta said...

I just checked to be sure. It is 9" x 5", so it must be the camera angle.

If you’re making smaller cakes, you will definitely have to adjust the time since the heat will penetrate the cake more quickly. Depending on the size, I'd start with half the time and go on from there. Another alternative is to just cut a full-size cake into sections like you see in the stores. This is what we do when we're giving it as gifts (to a very select few!).

One thing I forgot to put in the recipe (and will edit it in shortly) is that we put a folded over piece of parchment paper (for strength) in the bottom of the pan and run it up and over the long side. (You'll see this in the second photo.) When the cake has cooled (shrinking it a bit, we just run a knife down the two short ends to loosen it, then use the pieces of parchment paper to lift the cake out – easy as can be.

Thanks for writing in. Since you're in Ontario, a great source for the candied fruit is Bulk Barn. There’s is very good quality. (The ginger in syrup is usually found over with the peanut butter and oils.)

Rick Blechta said...

Susan, you may be able to find that favourite cake recipe on the Chatelaine website or in one of their cookbooks. I know that they keep track of every recipe they publish – even the old ones. If that gives you no glory, contact them directly.

Good luck!