Saturday, December 17, 2011

Backstage Mom and Fruitcake

This is the latest I've ever made fruitcake. December 17th. But it's not my fault. We have a music-mad high school senior in our house this year. He is in six performance choirs, ranging in size and style from eight close-harmony male singers to a full-on chamber choir that performs with groups like the Oregon Symphony and Pink Martini. When you go to those beautiful holiday concerts, it all looks so effortless and festive. The orchestra is in tune. The guys look great in their tuxes. The singing is heavenly. What you don't see are the last-minute trips to the dry cleaners and the Mr. Formal outlet for an extra tux shirt, feeding the guys who are rehearsing for five hours straight, waking the kid up after a half-hour nap so he can get to the 5:00 call, making a half-dozen sandwiches so he can grab a couple as he runs out the door.

It's so worth it and it's the reason I didn't get around to the fruitcake this year and it's the reason why I couldn't find my recipe, so isn't it a good thing that I posted it a year ago?

However, I owe you all an apology. As I was reading the ingredients list, I realized that I had LEFT OUT THE NUTS. Whoops! I hope that those of you who made this queenly cake last year realized this lack and remedied it yourselves. But for those of you who didn't, I fixed it.

So without further ado (and without the accompanying Truman Capote story, but you can look that up on your own), here is what I have decided will be the annual posting of the Best Fruitcake Recipe Ever, known at our house as...

A Solid Mouthful of Christmas Fruitcake

You can change up the kinds of fruit and nuts and liquid, heaven knows I did. But this is the latest version and as far as I’m concerned, the best.

Plan on doing the work over several days, and allow four hours for the baking itself.

Step One

Prepare six cups of chopped dried fruit by cooking it over extreme low heat, preferably in a cast iron Dutch oven in two cups of liquid. Although I have included dried pineapple and golden raisins in the past, I recommend this combination:

2 cups dried apricots, diced
2 cups dried Bing cherries, snipped in half
½ cup candied orange peel
2 cups dried papaya, diced
A pint of rum. I like Bacardi’s Gold. Glug glug glug!
A cinnamon stick. This is to be removed after the simmering.

Stir it when you think of it, or when you want to inhale the Christmas smell. After it’s simmered for awhile (one to four hours, say), turn off the heat and let it sit. A day or two is fine. It sat three days this year, but it was out in our enclosed non-insulated porch known as “Fred,” so that was all right.

Chop a cup, cup-and-a-half of toasted nuts: hazelnuts, almonds, pecans, whatever you like. Put them aside. Once the fruit is done macerating, stir the nuts into the fruit mixture.

Step Two

Prepare the pans. This can be one big tube pan or several smaller loaf pans. If you have batter left over, you can even make cupcakes. Grease the pans with Crisco (I know, I know. Just do it…) and line them with parchment paper. When I line loaf pans, I just use one strip to cover the long axis of the pan and leave bunny ears hanging out on both sides. Then grease the paper. When Ed lines the tube pan, he uses Scotch tape to affix the paper to the inner tube part. Somehow, he does it so the tape is not in contact with the batter. I don’t want to know how.

Step Three

Pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees.

Cream together:

1 cup shortening
2 cups packed brown sugar
4 ounces of melted semi-sweet chocolate (I like Ghirardelli’s 60%, but really any baking chocolate will work)
4 tablespoons cocoa

Beat in:

6 large eggs

Add and beat in:

1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cardamom, if you have any.

Add and beat in:

3 cups WHITE flour. Don’t get all crunchy and sincere and use whole wheat flour. It will not work. Trust me, I know.

Add and beat in until the batter gets fluffy and changes color from dark to light brown, scraping the sides of the bowl from time to time:

2/3 cup apricot preserves or red current jelly
1 tablespoon rum extract
1 tablespoon chocolate extract
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

Stir the batter into the fruit and nut mixture, and then stir in:

8 ounces of bittersweet, mini chocolate chips.

Really. Elizabeth says to do it and it worked out for us this year.

Make sure everyone in the family stirs it for luck in the coming year. Wishes made at this time have a better chance of coming true than wishes made at other times, except for birthday candle wishes.

Step Four

Boil water in a kettle. Then pour this hot water into a large lasagna-type pan. While you are waiting for the water to boil, pour the batter into prepared pans. Put the hot water pan on the bottom rack of the oven and the cakes on a rack above it.

Get out your timer and a box of toothpicks. The length of time that fruitcakes bake is much more art than science and you will have to rely upon your Curious Nose as much as upon the timer. I’ve found that fruitcakes bake for these approximate durations, but don’t blame the results on me if you get all precise and just use a timer for these treasures instead of paying attention.

Tube pan: four hours
Nine inch loaf pans: 2 ½ - 3 hours
Seven inch loaf pans: 1 ½ - 2 hours
Little pans: About 1 – ½ hours
Really cute tiny pans and cupcakes: I once had an oven that baked them in 45 minutes flat. My oven this year takes more like an hour, maybe even an hour and a quarter.

Check them with toothpicks before you take them out. The toothpick should come out clean when the cake is done, but it might not because of the sticky fruit or if you hit a pocket of chocolate chips. Check it twice.

The cakes will look dry around the edges and should have pulled away from the ends of the pan a tiny bit. Don’t let them brown though.

They should smell like heaven. You can carry one around the house and give everybody a sniff. This always makes me feel like a pre-Christian priestess with a votive offering. Or maybe I’m just being a bit braggy.

As you take out each installment, put the pans on cooling racks. Don’t take the cakes out of the pans, no matter how Curious you are, until they’ve sat for 15 minutes or so. The first tiny one can be a tester, that’s okay. And besides, you need to know if the parchment paper will peel off cleanly, right? Use a serrated knife to slice those first warm, fragile pieces. Be patient and slow in your slicing.

I like to loosen the parchment paper on all the cakes before I go to bed for the night, just to make sure it will not cement itself permanently to the cake, although I’m sure it wouldn’t. Pretty sure, anyway.

Once the cakes have cooled thoroughly (the tube pan will need to sit all night, and I sometimes get all 1950s and invert it on an old-fashioned glass Coke bottle or even a wine bottle), you can peel off the paper and wrap them in aluminum foil. Some years I wrap them in cheese cloth first and douse them in brandy or rum before wrapping them up – this is on the rare occasion that I actually do make them in August or September.

Put them somewhere cool for a month or so to age and meld. Mine used to sit in the cellar until we insulated it. Now we put them in “Fred.” Somewhere that stays above freezing but below fifty degrees would be ideal. Keep an eye on them. Sometimes one of the smaller ones will disappear.

Merry Christmas!