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Seven recipes to make you rethink fruit cake

  • It’s hard to believe there’s no added fat in this supermoist cake. It tastes rich and quite fruity. Arkansas Fig Fruitcake. Illustrates FRUITCAKE (category d), by Jane Touzalin (c) 2012, The Washington Post.  Moved Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey.)

    It’s hard to believe there’s no added fat in this supermoist cake. It tastes rich and quite fruity. Arkansas Fig Fruitcake. Illustrates FRUITCAKE (category d), by Jane Touzalin (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey.)

  • This isn’t a traditional fruitcake, but the brandied cherries put it in the same family. Brandied Cherry Chocolate Cake. Illustrates FRUITCAKE (category d), by Jane Touzalin (c) 2012, The Washington Post.  Moved Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey.)

    This isn’t a traditional fruitcake, but the brandied cherries put it in the same family. Brandied Cherry Chocolate Cake. Illustrates FRUITCAKE (category d), by Jane Touzalin (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey.)

  • It’s hard to believe there’s no added fat in this supermoist cake. It tastes rich and quite fruity. Arkansas Fig Fruitcake. Illustrates FRUITCAKE (category d), by Jane Touzalin (c) 2012, The Washington Post.  Moved Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey.)
  • This isn’t a traditional fruitcake, but the brandied cherries put it in the same family. Brandied Cherry Chocolate Cake. Illustrates FRUITCAKE (category d), by Jane Touzalin (c) 2012, The Washington Post.  Moved Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey.)

No holiday food is more ridiculed than the fruitcake.

Let’s start with the fruit: the cloyingly sweet, brighter-than-life lumps of green, yellow and red that dare you to guess their identity.

Then, the booze, often so overpowering that it’s all you taste.

Inexplicably, the crumbly dryness. (Maybe that’s what the booze is for.)

Everyone knows there’s a lot of bad fruitcake out there. And that creates a dilemma for Ciji Wagner, chef at Drafting Table in Washington, who has a fruitcake she hopes to put on the menu soon. But will anyone order it?

“That’s my conundrum, figuring out how to convince people that it’s worth getting,” says Wagner, who began with a family recipe and adapted it over the years. She says she’s hoping her reputation – she’s a former pastry chef - will help sell the cake to skeptics.

Skeptics, after all, are legion. YouTube is packed with videos of people destroying fruitcakes in creative ways. A town in Colorado has a yearly fruitcake flinging event. There are fruitcake jokes, which – if you ask fruitcake manufacturers – are at the root of their PR challenge.

Johnny Carson most often gets the blame for fruitcake’s image problem. He famously joked that there’s actually only one fruitcake in the world, which gets passed from household to household. Other comedians riffed on the idea. That was way back in the 1970s, but for Dale Parker, it still stings. He’s the vice president of the company that makes Claxton Fruit Cakes, in Claxton, Ga., where the city water tower reads “Fruitcake Capital of the World.”

“In the ‘60s, it was different,” Parker says. “Fruitcake was respected. Then along came some of the comedians, passing jokes. Fruitcake got a bad rap.”

Then again, he adds, “A lot of the comedians who told those jokes, they’re gone now. And we’re still here.”

Even in those dark days of leisure suits and disco, my mother made fruitcakes; it was a project that began weeks before Christmas, heralded by the containers of candied fruit piling up on the kitchen counter. The cakes were doused in brandy, wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth, entombed in earthenware casks and periodically fed more brandy. The grateful recipients – at least they said they were grateful – always raved about the level of alcohol: My, so much of it! I always wondered why they didn’t just pour a glass and save themselves the trouble of chewing all that candied fruit. I helped her make them, but I didn’t like them.

What I consider my fruitcake awakening happened years ago, when I clipped a recipe for Arkansas Fig Fruitcake from a newspaper and baked a few as Christmas presents. No chewy nuggets, no cheesy colors. Just dried fruit and nuts. The grateful recipients – again, at least they said they were grateful – praised the rich, fruity flavor and the moistness achieved without so much as a drop of brandy. I made the cake for a few years, then forgot about it.

Until this year, when it was time to start thinking about holiday gift baking. The fig fruitcake came to mind, and I wondered whether I could find other worthy recipes that didn’t rely on sugar-injected fruit and buckets of booze.

It turns out I could.

Washington baker and cookbook author Lisa Yockelson captured my attention with her Luxury Cake, a tall, rich and gingery creation with a hint of rum. Southern-cooking doyenne Nathalie Dupree’s latest book features White Fruitcake, the recipe she credits for turning her into a fruitcake believer.

I found an interesting hearty fruitcake made with Guinness stout: a departure from the norm. There’s Ciji Wagner’s cake, made to be aged (but not saturated) in rum or brandy. Maybe not a traditional fruitcake, but chef Peter Brett of Blue Duck Tavern serves an elegant chocolate dessert packed with brandied cherries. Even something for the diehard skeptics: individual creme brulees built on pieces of unwanted (or leftover) fruitcake.

Some tips for bakers: Fruitcakes are not cheap to make, so it makes sense to buy the best ingredients. Start showing up at that fitness center you don’t go to anymore; mixing (and hefting) these cakes takes muscle. When baking, check your cake before the end of the prescribed time; you don’t want it to be dry. And if you absolutely must have a boozier cake, use brandy or rum (or whatever) for soaking the fruit, or as a substitute for other liquids in the recipe, or . . . well, I’m sure you can figure out a way.

And try these recipes. I’ve been giving samples to friends and colleagues, and it turns out they’re grateful to receive fruitcakes like these – at least they said they were.

Luxury Cake

For the cake

3 cups mixed dried fruits (such as apricots, figs, pitted dates, apples, peaches, nectarines, plums and such), finely chopped

1 cup golden seedless raisins

1 cup dark seedless raisins

2∕3 cup dark rum

21∕2 cups unsifted, bleached all-purpose flour

1∕2 cup unsifted bleached cake flour

11∕2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons ground ginger

11∕4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

11∕4 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg

3∕4 teaspoon ground allspice

4 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar

6 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1∕2 cup best-quality ginger preserves

1 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped

11∕2 cups walnut halves or pieces

For the glaze and fruit finish (optional)

11∕3 cups best-quality apricot jam

1 tablespoon water

thinly sliced dried or glazed fruit

For the cake: Combine the dried fruits and the raisins in a very large nonreactive mixing bowl. Add the rum, toss well to coat, and cover loosely with a sheet of plastic wrap. Let the mixture stand at cool room temperature for 4 hours (or up to 8 hours).

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

Spray the inside of a plain, one-piece 93∕4-inch tube pan (6 inches deep, with a capacity of 18 cups) with nonstick flour-and-oil spray. Line the bottom of the pan with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit and film its surface with the spray. (It is essential to line the bottom of the pan.)

For the batter, sift the flours together with the baking powder, salt, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice onto a sheet of wax paper.

Beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until lightened. Reduce the speed to medium and add the dark brown sugar in 3 additions, beating for 1 minute after each portion is added. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing for 30 seconds after each addition. Blend in the vanilla extract and ginger preserves. Reduce the speed to low and add the sifted mixture in 3 additions. Use a flexible spatula to scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl thoroughly after each addition. Scrape the batter over the marinated fruit mixture, add the crystallized ginger and walnuts, and stir to thoroughly mix the fruits and nuts with the batter.

Spoon the batter into the prepared baking pan. Use a flexible spatula to smooth the top.

Bake for 21∕2 hours or until a wooden pick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Begin checking the cake at 2 hours and 15 minutes. The baked cake will pull away slightly from the sides of the pan and the surface will be level.

Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Carefully invert the cake onto another cooling rack. Lift off the pan, remove the circle of parchment paper if it clings to the cake, and invert the cake to stand right side up. Cool completely. Store in an airtight cake keeper. An hour or two before serving is the ideal time to glaze the top of the cake and apply dried or glazed fruits to it, if you wish.

To make the optional glaze, combine the jam and water in a small, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is barely bubbling. Cook for 2 minutes, adjusting the heat so it doesn’t come to a full boil, then remove it from the heat.

Turn the jam mixture into a stainless-steel strainer set over a heatproof nonreactive bowl, and use a flexible spatula to push it through. Discard the solids in the strainer.

To use the glaze immediately, heat it in a clean, dry saucepan over medium heat until the glaze is barely bubbling. Cook for 30 seconds. Or cool the glaze completely and refrigerate it in an airtight container.

Use a soft pastry brush to apply the warm glaze to the top of the cake. Wait a minute, then carefully arrange dried or glazed fruit on the surface in a pretty pattern.

Makes one 93∕4-inch cake (about 20 slices).

Adapted from Baking Style, by Lisa Yockelson

Ciji Wagner’s Fruitcake

11∕2 cups dried currants

1 cup dried cranberries

1∕2 cup dried cherries

1∕2 cup coarsely chopped dried apricots

3∕4 cup coarsely chopped dried pineapple

1∕2 cup chopped candied ginger

zest and juice of 2 oranges (3 tablespoons zest, 2∕3 to 1 cup juice)

1 cup golden or dark rum, plus golden rum or brandy for brushing the cake

3∕4 cup sugar

11∕2 sticks unsalted butter

1∕2 cup unsweetened apple juice or brandy

1∕4 teaspoon ground cloves

1∕2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

11∕2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1∕2 teaspoon ground ginger

2 large eggs

13∕4 cups flour

11∕2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

3∕4 cup pecan pieces, toasted (see note)

Combine the currants, cranberries, cherries, apricots, pineapple, ginger and orange zest in a medium bowl. Stir in the rum and let the mixture macerate overnight or up to 2 days, stirring occasionally.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray a 10-inch loaf pan or Bundt pan with nonstick oil-and-flour spray.

Transfer the fruit and its macerating liquid to a large pot and add the sugar, butter, orange juice, apple juice or brandy, and the spices. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to low and cook, with the liquid barely bubbling, until the mixture has thickened, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and cool to room temperature.

Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until completely incorporated. Combine the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder in a medium bowl and sift it into the fruit mixture. Stir to combine. Fold in the pecans, making sure not to overmix the batter. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. While the cake is still hot, lightly brush the top with brandy or rum. Let the cake cool completely in the pan, then remove it from the pan and transfer to an airtight container.

Check the cake every other day. If it seems dry, lightly brush more brandy or rum on top. Continue checking and soaking the cake until you serve it or give it away.

Makes one 10-inch loaf or Bundt cake (20 servings).

NOTE: To toast the pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and place in a 350-degree oven, shaking the sheet occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes. Watch carefully; nuts burn quickly.

MAKE AHEAD: The cake is at its peak after 3 weeks, but it can be stored for up to 6 weeks.

Adapted from Ciji Wagner, executive chef at Drafting Table in Washington

Brandied Cherry Chocolate Cake

6 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate, chilled

11∕2 cups chopped almonds, chilled

61∕2 tablespoons flour

11∕2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

3∕4 cup sugar

4 large eggs, separated into yolks and whites

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

16 ounces drained brandied cherries (see note)

confectioners sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Spray a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick oil-and-flour spray and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper.

Pulse the chocolate, almonds and flour in a food processor to grind them into a fine meal, being careful not to turn them into a paste.

Beat the butter and sugar together at high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolks, then the vanilla and almond extracts, and beat well to combine. Add the chocolate-nut mixture and beat until incorporated.

Beat the egg whites in a separate, clean bowl until they form soft peaks. Use a flexible spatula to fold them into the chocolate-sugar mixture.

Spread half of the batter in the prepared pan. Top with the brandied cherries, which should fit evenly in 1 layer. Spread the remaining batter over the cherries, using a flexible spatula to lightly level the top. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the cake is puffed and set. Cool it on a rack and turn it out of the pan. Dust the top generously with confectioners’ sugar. Serve warm or cool. Makes 16 servings.

Note: The recipe calls for brandied cherries (not the same as maraschino cherries). They’re found at gourmet stores and online; we found several brands on Amazon.com. They’re also very easy (and much cheaper) to make; recipes abound on the Internet.

Adapted from Peter Brett, pastry chef at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, D.C.

White Fruitcake

21∕2 cups golden raisins

1 cup dried apricots, cut into quarters

1 cup chopped crystallized ginger

23∕4 cups all-purpose or cake flour

2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

5 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 teaspoon baking powder

1∕2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest

2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest

2 cups chopped pecans, toasted and cooled (see note)

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Spray two 41∕2-by-81∕2-inch loaf pans with nonstick oil-and-flour spray. Line with 2 pieces of parchment or wax paper, one cut to the width of the pan and the other to the length of the pan plus 4 inches of overhang to use as handles to lift the loaf from the pan.

Toss the raisins, apricots and ginger in 1∕4 cup of flour until evenly coated.

Cut the butter into 1-inch pieces, add them to the bowl of mixer and beat on low speed until soft, about 3 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 or 2 minutes, until the mixture looks like lightly whipped cream. Reduce the speed to low and add the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, gradually increasing the speed and beating until well whipped, 5 or 6 minutes. Combine the eggs and extracts in a small bowl, then add to the butter mixture in four additions, beating for 1 minute on medium-low speed after each addition. The mixture might look curdled, but all will be well.

Sift the remaining 21∕2 cups of flour with the baking powder and salt onto a piece of wax paper. With the mixer on low speed, add half of the flour mixture to the batter, beat well, then add the remaining flour mixture and beat. Once the flour is incorporated, use a flexible spatula to fold in the grated zests, then the nuts and dried fruit. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Tap each pan once against the counter to remove any air bubbles, and smooth the tops.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes to 11∕2 hours or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. (The cakes will be white and might give the appearance of being underbaked even though they are not.) Transfer the pans to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Carefully run a knife around the inside of the pans to loosen the cakes. Use the parchment paper handles to remove the cakes from the pans and transfer them to the wire rack. Remove the parchment or wax paper and cool the cakes thoroughly.

Makes two 41∕2-by-81∕2-inch loaves (32 servings).

Note: To toast pecans, spread them on a baking sheet and place in a 350-degree oven, shaking the sheet occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes. Watch carefully; nuts burn quickly.

MAKE AHEAD: The cakes can be tightly wrapped and stored at room temperature for 3 days or frozen for up to 4 months.

Adapted from Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, by Dupree and Cynthia Graubart

Fruitcake Brulee With Caramelized Blood Oranges

For the brulees:

1 vanilla bean

11∕2 cups plus 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

3 large egg yolks

1∕3 cup ounces superfine sugar

11∕3 cups ounces leftover fruitcake

1∕4 cup demerara sugar

For the oranges

3 blood oranges (see note)

1∕2 cup demerara sugar

2 bay leaves, preferably fresh

3 cardamom pods, crushed

3 whole cloves

3 star anise

1 3-inch cinnamon stick

1∕2 cup red wine

For the brulees: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Have six 6-ounce ramekins at hand.

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and place the seeds and pod in a small saucepan with the cream. Heat over medium-high heat to just below the boiling point, stirring occasionally.

While the cream is heating, whisk the egg yolks and superfine sugar in a medium bowl until they are thick and pale, about 5 minutes.

Remove the vanilla pod from the hot cream; gradually pour the cream over the egg mixture, whisking continuously to avoid coagulating the egg.

Divide the fruitcake among the ramekins. Pour the cream and egg mixture over the fruitcake. Line a roasting pan with a kitchen towel and set the ramekins in the pan. Pour in enough hot water to come three-quarters of the way up the side of the ramekins. Cover the roasting pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes or until the mixture has almost set. Remove the ramekins from the pan and allow to cool, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours to chill thoroughly.

For the oranges: Peel the oranges and cut them crosswise into 1∕4-inch-thick slices.

Heat the demerara sugar in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the bay leaves, cardamom, cloves, anise and cinnamon stick; cook for 3 or 4 minutes, until the sugar has melted and turned a golden caramel color. Add the orange slices and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the wine and cook for 1 minute.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the orange slices to a medium dish. Bring the liquid in the skillet to a boil and cook until it is thick and syrupy, about 15 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to cool. Spoon the cooled liquid over the orange slices, cover and refrigerate.

To serve, sprinkle the brulees evenly with the demerara sugar. Either fire with a culinary torch or place briefly under the broiler until the sugar is golden and caramelized. Serve with the chilled blood oranges. Discard the syrup and whole spices.

Makes 6 servings.

Note: Aromatic blood oranges make a perfect accompaniment, but if they are not in season, use any variety of orange.

MAKE AHEAD: The baked brulees need to be refrigerated for 3 hours.

Adapted from The Modern Vegetarian, by Maria Elia

Arkansas Fig Fruitcake

3 cups dried figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped

2 cups plus 6 tablespoons sugar

21∕2 cups water, plus more as needed

2 cups finely diced, peeled apple

15-ounce box raisins

2 cups pecans or black walnuts, in halves or pieces

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking soda

Combine the figs, 6 tablespoons of the sugar and 2 cups of the water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the figs are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the mixture rest for 10 minutes, then use an immersion blender on low speed to process the figs to a coarse puree, adding water as needed. Let cool. The yield is slightly more than 2 cups.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Use nonstick oil-and-flour spray to grease a 93∕4-inch tube pan, preferably one with a removable bottom, or two standard loaf pans.

Measure 2 cups of the fig puree and transfer to a very large mixing bowl along with the apple, raisins and nuts. Stir to mix well.

Whisk together the flour, the remaining 2 cups of sugar, the cinnamon, cloves and salt in a separate large bowl until combined.

Combine the baking soda and the remaining 1∕2 cup of water in a small bowl, stirring until the baking soda has dissolved. Stir this into the fruit mixture.

Add the dry ingredients to the fruit mixture and mix well. The batter will be extremely thick and heavy, so at this point it’s easiest to mix it with your hands. You might need to add a couple tablespoons of water to moisten all the ingredients.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan(s) and use a flexible spatula to smooth the top. Bake for 13∕4 to 2 hours or until a tester inserted near the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Cool for 30 minutes, then remove from the pan to cool completely. (If using a tube pan with a removable base, keep the cake on the base as it cools.) Wrap tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

Makes one 9 3∕4-inch cake (20 servings).

Note: Don’t be tempted to buy commercially made fig preserves as a shortcut to making the fig puree; they will cause the recipe to fail.

MAKE AHEAD: The fig mixture can be made up to 2 days in advance, covered and refrigerated. The fruitcake can be wrapped and stored for up to 2 weeks.

From motherlindas.com

Guinness Fruit Cake

31∕2 cups self-rising flour

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 sticks unsalted butter, in small chunks

2∕3 cup dried currants

2∕3 cup golden raisins

2∕3 cup good-quality candied citrus peel

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar

3∕4 cup plus 1 tablespoon Guinness or another stout, plus more for serving (optional)

4 large eggs

confectioners sugar (optional)

unsweetened whipped cream or salted butter (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. (If you have a convection oven, turn off the fan.)

Use nonstick cooking oil spray to grease a 9-inch round cake pan with high sides and a removable bottom. Line the bottom and sides of the pan with parchment paper and grease it with the spray.

Sift the flour with the spices into a big bowl. Use a fork to quickly rub the butter chunks into the flour mixture until it looks like coarse bread crumbs. Add the currants, raisins, candied peel, lemon zest and brown sugar, and mix well.

Beat the Guinness into the eggs and trickle the resulting mixture into the flour mixture, stirring until combined. Pour into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 1 hour. Lower the oven temperature to just under 300 degrees and loosely cover the cake with aluminum foil. Bake for another hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry.

Let the cake cool on a rack. To serve, sift confectioners sugar over the top, if desired, or prick some holes in the top of the cake and drizzle a little Guinness over it. Serve with whipped cream or salted butter.

Makes one 9-inch cake (20 servings).

Adapted from Home Made Winter, by Yvette van Boven

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