Fruitcake: The Keeping Cakes of Christmas
The urge to bake for the holidays is so strong in my family that the ovens were fired up for some serious duty each fall on October 12, the traditional Columbus Day. Nothing could deter my mother from getting her hands into her bin of flour on that day. Columbus Day meant that Brazil nut fruitcakes were on the docket first because they needed time to “age.” Then would come the traditional yeasted tall panettone that no one would dare be without in an Italian family. Pound cakes made the list, too, because they were good keepers and perfect to hand out to neighbors, and panforte, a slender fruitcake from Tuscany, rounded out the keeping cakes of Christmas.
My mother’s fruitcakes did not resemble in any way those dastardly dreaded store bought fruitcakes in gleaming, shiny round tins that lined grocery store shelves beginning in November. Those insipid, medicinal tasting “cakes” have caused more than a generation of people to pray, with beads of sweat at their brow, that they would not be the recipient of one from a dear ol’ auntie or business acquaintance.
Mom’s fruitcakes were moist and chocked full of nuts and candied fruits. I always marveled at how little flour was in the batter to hold all the ingredients together. When they were baked, the hefty cakes were removed from their loaf pans. Then came the fun part. Each one was brushed with brandy or port wine and wrapped in cheesecloth. They were tucked away for the holidays and stored in tins in the pantry for a few weeks before more brandy or port wine was added. Mom made enough so that relatives who lived as far away as California would be lucky enough to get one of them.
On Christmas day, the first neatly perfumy “aged” slices were displayed on the dessert buffet. They were so rich that a small piece was more than filling.
And after the holidays were mere memories, and well into spring, we continued to enjoy the rich taste and moist goodness of mom’s exquisite fruitcake.
1-6 ounce can frozen orange juice, thawed
1/2 cup molasses
3 cups raisins
2 cups mixed, diced candied orange and lemon rind
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups sifted unbleached all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/2 cup coarsely chopped nuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 275F
Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan. Set aside.
Combine the orange juice, molasses, and raisins in a saucepan. Cook until the mixture begins to boil; simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Stir in the raisins, and candied rinds, and set aside off the heat.
In a bowl cream the butter, sugar, and eggs until light and fluffy.
On a piece of wax paper sift together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. Transfer to the bowl with the butter mixture. Mix well. Stir in the orange juice and molasses mixture. Stir in the nuts.
Pour the batter into the tube pan and bake for 2 to 2 1/4 hours our until a cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and allow the cake to cool completely. Loosen the cake from around the inside edges with a butter knife; invert the pan and remove the cake. Wrap the cake in cheesecloth.
Place it on a dish. Fill a spray bottle with 1/2 cup of Port wine. Spray the cheesecloth with the wine; be sure to spray all around the cake.
Wrap the cake in aluminum foil and place it in a deep cookie tin or in a Tupperware container. Cover and keep the cake in a cool, dark place; every two weeks, open up the tin, open the foil and re-spray the cheesecloth with the Port wine. Refold the aluminum foil over the cake and replace it in its container.
Variation; make the cake in mini-versions using muffin tins or small loaf pans; follow the same procedure for aging and storing. The baking time will vary.