People hate fruitcake. One mention of the word invokes comparisons to doorstops and urban legends about the blocks being passed on over the years. And with all honesty, my own opinion reflected that of the masses. It generally wasn’t part of my family’s Christmas tradition, however; it was typically cut into fingers, wrapped in cellophane, stuffed into a paper scroll, and distributed during the Presentation lines at weddings. This was meant to be the token sharing of the wedding cake.
It was crumbly, filled with fruit detested by children, and had an unidentifiable chemical taste. The only reprieve was with the sickly-sweet layer of almond-flavoured frosting on the end. The seasonal version picked up at the local grocery store offered no real variation on this sad theme; same fruit, same texture, same taste. The “light” fruitcake was slightly less evil, with maraschino cherries leaching their red dye into a generic pound cake. It was only more tolerable because it bore no resemblance to the dark cake and was devoid of bitter nuts or dates. Regardless, I was not a fan of either.
That being said, I don’t know what prompted me to make it. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I was seduced by the glossy pages of the Martha Stewart Living, December 2000 issue and her article on fruitcakes. Always up for a challenge, I tackled the dark cake (making judicial substitutions and swaps) and four weeks later, started a fruitcake revolution. It was more than edible; it was actually good. Sworn anti-fruitcakers are now converts, banging down my door every Christmas for the latest variation. I think it might be all the alcohol, with the macerated fruit acting as nothing more than an elaborate vessel. But I’m not complaining.
I generally alternate between a light version and a dark version. The light is stewed in sherry and is slightly more delicate in flavour and presentation, while the classic dark is soaked in rum and includes the traditional dates and figs. Both are fairly easy to whip up but do require time (at least a month of weekly liquor dousings) and money (good fruits, nuts and spirits are priced at a premium). The recipes are also flexible enough to allow for customization and tweaking to whatever your budget and tastebuds allow, since the cake is really nothing more than a bit of cake batter coating masses of fruits and nuts.
I’m presenting to you my recipe for the light version of the fruitcake. Check back next year for the dark. It might be a little late to make it for this holiday season, but next year, with a jump start, you’ll be sharing it with pride as your recipients eye it suspiciously, then ultimately consume whole slabs…all washed down with a hot cup of tea, of course.
Makes five 5 3/4-by-3-inch tea loaves, or two 9-by-5-by-2 1/2-inch tea loaves.1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature 2/3 pound (300g, or about 2 cups) candied chopped citrus peel, such as grapefruit, orange, or lemon ½ pound (225g) dried apricots, each sliced in quarters ½ pound (225g) dried cherries or cranberries ½ pound (225g) dried pineapple rings, cut into ½ inch pieces 1 pound (454g, or about 2 1/2 cups) blanched whole almonds 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar 5 large eggs, room temperature 3 tablespoons dry sherry, plus more for dousing 2 teaspoons vanilla extract Zest of 1 lemon Zest of 1 orange Pinch salt 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line bottoms of pans with parchment and give a quick spritz with cooking spray. Tumble together the candied citrus, dried fruits and almonds in a mixing bowl and set aside.
In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl a couple of times. Stir in 3 tablespoons sherry, citrus zest and salt.
Reduce speed of mixer to low. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating until just combined. Remove bowl from stand mixer and fold in fruit and almonds until just combined.
Pour the batter into prepared pans. Bake until golden and set and a cake tester inserted into the middle of each cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes (20 to 30 minutes for larger cakes).
Remove the cakes from oven, and drizzle each with 3 tablespoons sherry while still hot. Cool the cakes completely on a wire rack. Remove cakes from loaf pans, and discard parchment paper. Wrap the cakes in muslin or cheesecloth. Store in a cool, dark, dry place, dousing cakes with several tablespoons of sherry once a week for at least 1 month.
Slice very thinly and serve with a nice black tea. If you’re having trouble cutting cleanly through all the fruits and nuts, keep it in the freezer. It cuts like a dream when frozen, and the thin slices defrost very quickly.