Fruitcakes. People either love them or loathe them and there seems to be no middle ground. I personally favour them and they are part of my annual Christmas traditions.
There are basically two kinds of fruitcakes, a light cake and a dark cake. The dark fruitcake is characterized by the addition of molasses, spices, and often strawberry jam, all of which contribute to its dark color. The light fruit cake has a light-colored batter which makes the jewel tones of the glazed fruit pop. It is, by far, the most colorful of the two cakes. While I could not find any conclusive statistics, it seems to me that dark fruitcakes may perhaps be the more common.
Fruitcakes are sometimes called Christmas cakes since that’s often the only time of the year they make an appearance anymore. Years ago, however, fruitcake was a staple at weddings where the dark fruitcake was referred to as the groom’s cake while white pound cake was the bride’s cake. This tradition, at least where I live, has long since been dispensed with and replaced, instead, with many other cake flavor options.
I have been making fruitcakes for 38 years (I started making them when I was two! At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! Or, maybe it’s the vapors from the joy juice I’ve been brushing on my fruitcake over the past several weeks talking!). Some years I make both dark and light fruitcakes and, other years, one or the other. I simply love the smell of a fruitcake baking in the oven on a cold November afternoon. I always make my fruitcake around Remembrance Day as that gives it lots of time to “ripen” and mellow before the holidays. The making of the fruitcake heralds the beginning of my holiday preparations.
Fruitcakes are still considered a luxurious treat by many because the ingredients can be costly and the cake is time-consuming to make. Sometimes it is even hard to find the big sticky raisins, often referred to as Lexia raisins, which are a signature ingredient in a traditional dark fruitcake.
Essentially, a fruit cake is a mixture of candied/glazed fruit, different kinds of raisins, and often nuts, all held together by a small amount of batter. Before I share my recipe for dark fruitcake at the end of this posting, I am going to share some hints and tips from my almost-40 years of making fruitcakes. I hope you will find them helpful.
Traditionally, fruitcakes are either square or round-shaped and quite deep – at least 2½” – 3” deep. The pans should be ones that have removable bottoms as this makes it easy to remove the cake from the pan. The pans below have been in my family for years and have held many fruitcakes. They may be old and discolored but they do the trick!
Square cakes are infinitely easier to cut and plate more attractively than round cakes. With square pans, each piece can be cut to the same size and shape whereas, with round cakes, it is more difficult to get nice, even pieces from pie-shaped wedges. However, the shape of the cake is a personal preference and the cake will taste the same regardless of shape.
It is important to use the size of pan the recipe calls for as baking times have been tested for its size. Some bakers use loaf pans, 9”x13” shallow pans, or even muffin cups or soup cans in which to bake their fruit cakes. If changing a pan size from the one recommended by the recipe, remember that baking times will need to be adjusted accordingly as a more shallow or smaller cake will take less time than a deeper one to bake.
Commonly, the glazed and dry fruit, including the raisins and currants, are soaked in liquor, with rum or brandy the most commonly used types of libation. Alternatively the fruit can be soaked in a fruit juice.
The purpose of soaking the fruit is three-fold:
1) To soften/plump the dried fruit – the raisins, in particular;
2) To add flavour to the cake; and
3) As a preservative (if using liquor) to extend the shelf life of the cake.
Some bakers soak the fruit for several months. I don’t find this necessary or that the cake has any significantly better flavour if made with fruit that has been soaked for months. I soak the fruit in a covered container for 24-48 hours, stirring it 3-4 times during the macerating process.
It is important to resist adding more liquor to the fruit soak than is called for in the recipe. Adding too much liquor will add too much liquid to the batter, making it too runny to hold the fruit from falling to the cake bottom.
Fruit and Nut Content
True traditional fruit cakes will have candied/glazed fruit, a mixture of raisins, and sometimes nuts. It is important that candied/glazed fruit be used and not, for example, fruit with a lot of liquid such as maraschino cherries which will add too much excess liquid to the batter.
Fruitcakes typically do contain nuts; however, my recipe below is nut-free. I find several issues with including nuts in a fruitcake:
1) Nuts, over the long term, can go rancid or, alternatively, be hard junks in an otherwise soft texture cake;
2) Chunks of nuts can make it difficult to cut the cake; and
3) Many people have nut allergies and cannot enjoy a piece of fruitcake made with nuts.
Fruitcake ingredients can be flexible which means substitute ingredients are perfectly acceptable so long as the overall weight content of the fruit that the recipe calls for is maintained. For example, my fruitcake recipe calls for 3 pounds of fruit and I have listed the weight content of each ingredient. If you don’t happen to like citron, for example, simply omit the 3 oz called for and replace it with another glazed fruit of the same weight. If you want to add some nuts to the cake, then reduce the amount of some other ingredient, such as raisins or glazed fruit, by the weight of the nuts you are adding.
A fruit cake batter is very thick and dense and contains very little flour content. Essentially, there is just enough batter to hold the ingredients together. The reason the batter needs to be thick (as opposed to runny) is that it needs to support the heavy fruit content and keep it suspended and distributed evenly throughout the cake. Otherwise, the fruit will fall to the bottom of the cake.
It is important to “flour” the fruit with a small amount of flour just before adding the fruit to the batter. This will also help to keep the fruit suspended throughout the cake. You will want to do this quickly and not leave the floured fruit any length of time before adding it to the batter as the flour when combined with the glaze on the fruit can turn into a gummy mess, thus defeating the purpose of flouring the fruit.
Preparing the Pan
The pan needs to be greased or sprayed with cooking oil then lined with either brown paper or parchment paper, then greased/sprayed again. Because there is very little leavening in the cake and because it is a heavy, thick cake, the pan can be fairly well filled without risk of batter running over the top.
Decorating the Cake Top
There are many ways to decorate the top of a fruitcake and some are very elaborate and show-worthy. Some bakers completely cover the top of the cake with a lovely pattern of whole glazed cherries and/or nuts, topped with a glaze. Others decorate with just a few cherries/nuts. I sometimes do the latter but often leave it plain as it is easier to cut and plate.
Some bakers cover the cake with royal icing and marzipan. However, I find that the moisture from a dark fruit cake stains the icing making it less attractive.
Baking the Fruitcake
Baking is always the tricky part to fruitcake making. Fruitcakes need to be baked in slow ovens – i.e., 275ºF or less for several hours. Baking at too high a temperature will result in a dry cake. Bake the fruitcakes in the lower third of the oven and include a small pan of water on the shelf below the cake. The steam from the water will help to keep the cake moist as it bakes.
If the cake starts to darken too much before it is baked, loosely tent a piece of tin foil over the top of the cake. However, only do this if the cake top has completely set all over as, otherwise, the tin foil will stick to the cake and pull some of the batter away from it thus ruining the look of the cake top.
The cake is done when it is firm to the touch and a cake tester or wooden skewer inserted into the cake center comes out relatively clean but with some moisture on it. The cake should not, however, be doughy. I generally start testing my cake about ½ hour before its designated baking time is up, then check it at 15-minute intervals until it is done. The blue cake tester in the photo below is actually a cake thermometer. If the tip of the thermometer turns bright red after having been inserted into the center of the cake for 5 seconds, the cake is done.
Cool the cake for about 40 minutes before carefully removing it from the pan and transferring it to a wire rack to cool completely. Because a fruit cake is a dense cake, this will take several hours or overnight.
Storing and Mellowing/Ripening the Cake
Once the cake has cooled, I brush a light coating of rum or brandy – whatever I have used in the cake – all over the cake. This adds more flavour and helps to maintain the cake’s moisture.
I then wrap the cake in cheesecloth (which can also be soaked in liquor) followed by a double layer of plastic wrap and double of tin foil.
The cake is then placed in a sealed bag and stored it in a cool, dry place to mellow or ripen, a process of time that allows the cake’s flavours to mix and mingle. I leave the cake stored at a very cool room temperature for 3-4 weeks, giving it a weekly nightcap by brushing another coating of the liquor all over the cake and re-wrapping it. After letting the cake mellow, I remove the cheesecloth and keep the cake wrapped in plastic wrap and tin foil inside a sealed bag and store it in the refrigerator or freeze it. It’s important to let the cake ripen first at cool room temperature as it won’t mellow further once refrigerated or frozen.
Slicing the Cake
I find the fruitcake slices easier from the refrigerator than at room temperature as it is a bit firmer when chilled. I recommend using a sharp, flat-edged knife to cut the cake as a serrated knife, for example, may pull the fruit during cutting, creating a ragged, uneven edge.
I cut each slab, across the full width of the cake, a good ½” wide. It needs to be a good width in order for it to hold together as it is being sliced.
For suggested serving size, I recommend slicing each slab into pieces that are about 1¼” wide.
7 oz seeded raisins (i.e., Lexia)
7 oz golden raisins
7 oz cup sultana raisins
3 oz dates, chopped
2 oz currants
9 oz mixed glazed fruit
4 oz red glazed cherries
4 oz green glazed cherries
3 oz citron
2 oz mixed peel
⅔ cup rum
½ cup flour
2 cups flour
½ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp soda
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp mace
½ tsp nutmeg
½ lb butter
¼ cup white sugar
1½ cups brown sugar
4 extra large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp almond flavouring
2½ tbsp molasses
½ cup strawberry jam
Measure fruit and transfer to a large bowl. Mix well. Pour ⅔ cup of rum over fruit. Stir to coat. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand for 24-48 hours to macerate the fruit, stirring occasionally.
Prepare 8-inch square fruitcake pan that is 3 inches deep and has a removable bottom: Lightly spray the bottom and sides of the pan with cooking spray. Line the pan, bottom and sides, with brown paper or parchment paper. Lightly spray the paper.
Sift together the dry ingredients. Set aside.
Using the paddle attachment on the stand mixer, cream the butter until light and fluffy.
Add the white sugar. Beat. Add the brown sugar and beat well, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula to ensure sugar is all incorporated.
Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add the vanilla and almond flavouring followed by the molasses. Mix thoroughly. Mix in the strawberry jam.
Add the dry ingredients and mix until combined into batter. Transfer batter to very large bowl. Sprinkle remaining ½ cup of flour (listed above in first set of ingredients) over the macerated fruit and toss ingredients lightly and quickly.
Add a few cherries as decorations to the top of the cake, if desired.
Place a small pan of water on the lower shelf in the oven. Bake fruitcake in lower third of the oven for about 5¾ hours or until cake is firm to the touch and cake tester inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Remove cake from oven and place on rack. Let cake cool in pan for about 40 minutes before carefully removing from pan and letting rest on cooling rack.
Let cake cool completely before brushing with rum and wrapping in cheesecloth, followed by plastic wrap and tin foil, then storing in a sealed plastic bag in a cool, dry area. Remove wrapping and brush cake top and sides with rum once a week. For best flavour, let cake “age” for at least 3-4 weeks before cutting and serving.
Yield: 1 – 6 lb cake
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