My family is kind of traditional and kind of not. Since I’ve been a child my mother and I have made our own wreaths and garland for Christmas, only we don’t do it every year. Some years someone’s too busy, or not around, or we can’t find the clippers. My family is also members of that mocked tribe of humanity who eat fruitcake. My grandmother – not a warm, round gramma type but a bony, mascara-ed, glamorous Daaahling of a grandmother – made a moist, black glistening loaf every year. Consuming it was a rite of passage; if you could put down a slice of Miney-Me’s (our nickname for her) whisky-soaked cake you were old enough for a lot of things.
It would be romantic to say that we’ve continued the tradition of making my grandmother’s fruitcake every year, and some years we do. But we also like fruitcake so much we’re willing to experiment. Yeah, I know, who experiments with fruitcake? Pie? sure. Crock-pot recipes? of course. No, my family takes their traditions and shakes them up.
This year my mother and I found both time and our clippers, so my daughters and I went to my mother’s house with a great bag of boxwood, juniper, white pine, and assorted scavenged greens. (My mother clipped some of her rhododendron leaves and blossoms, good for focus and structure. Dried hydangea and lavender give a little Provencal atmosphere.)
While we tied little bundles of greens with wire, my mother served her most recent fruitcake trial: Black Cake from a 2007 article in the New York Times. In this cake the dried fruits macerate for a few days, and are then ground in a food processor before being mixed into the batter. Black Cake has all the rich, complicated flavors of fruitcake with a texture like moist gingerbread.
Like lots of fruitcake recipes, this one could be made now and held for a year to mellow, but it wouldn’t be too young if you served it on Christmas Eve. No one would mock you for adding a few slices to a tray of Sugar Cookies, and some guest just might even come forward to reveal their “I’m a fan of fruitcake” badge. Chances are, they also secretly call people “Dahling.”
Adapted from the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook
1 pound prunes
1 pound dark raisins
1/2 pound golden raisins
1 pound currants
1 1/2 pounds dried cherries, or 1 pound dried cherries plus 1/2 pound glacé cherries
1/4 pound mixed candied citrus peel
2 cups dark rum; more for brushing cake
1 1/2 cups cherry brandy or Manischewitz Concord grape wine; more for grinding fruit
1/4 pound blanched almonds
1 cup white or light brown sugar for burning, or 1/4 cup dark molasses or cane syrup; more molasses for coloring batter
4 sticks (1 pound) butter; more for buttering pans
1 pound (about 2 1/2 cups) light or dark brown sugar
Zest of 2 limes
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon Angostura bitters
4 cups (1 pound) all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon.
At least 2 days before baking, combine prunes, raisins, currants, cherries, candied peel, rum and brandy in a glass jar or sturdy plastic container. Cover tightly; shake or stir occasionally.
When ready to bake, put soaked fruit and almonds in a blender or food processor; work in batches that the machine can handle. Grind to a rough paste, leaving some chunks of fruit intact. Add a little brandy or wine if needed to loosen mixture in the machine.
If burning sugar, place a deep, heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Add 1 cup white or light brown sugar, and melt, stirring with a wooden spoon. Stir, letting sugar darken. (It will smoke.) When sugar is almost black, stir in 1/4 cup boiling water. (It will splatter.) Turn off heat.
Heat oven to 250 degrees. Butter three 9-inch or four 8-inch cake pans; line bottoms with a double layer of parchment or wax paper.
In a mixer, cream butter and 1 pound light or dark brown sugar until smooth and fluffy. Mix in eggs one at a time, then lime zest, vanilla and bitters. Transfer mixture to a very large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Fold dry ingredients into butter mixture. Stir in fruit paste and 1/4 cup burnt sugar or molasses. Batter should be a medium-dark brown; if too light, add a tablespoon or two of burnt sugar or molasses.
Divide among prepared pans; cakes will not rise much, so fill pans almost to top. Bake 1 hour, and reduce heat to 225 degrees; bake 2 to 3 hours longer, until a tester inserted in center comes out clean. Remove to a rack.
While cakes are hot, brush tops with rum and let soak in. Repeat while cakes cool; they will absorb about 4 tablespoons total. When cakes are completely cool, they can be turned out and served. To keep longer, wrap cakes tightly in wax or parchment paper, then in foil. Store in a cool, dry place for up to 1 month.
Yield: 3 or 4 cakes, about 4 dozen servings.