Monday, December 15, 2008

Not Unlike

I have, for many years now, resisted the allure of dark fruitcakes. It is true that I have often, particularly at this time of year, leaped to the defense of fruitcakes whenever some misguided and underinformed soul has issued a blanket condemnation of fruitcakes as doorstops. And I've made black cake, which some would say is the cake that all dark fruitcakes hope to become in their next lives. But I haven't made the traditional dense and rich dark fruitcake of the sort that my mother makes. And I love it, truly I do. Even though my mother includes those horrible red and green cherries in her dark fruitcake, she also includes the best pecans, and she cloaks everything in a really good, spicy dark cake. What she ends up with is notably humongous, and it lasts, wrapped in cloth, soaked in spirits, and then wrapped again in aluminum foil, in a closet for much of the following year, disappearing a slice at a time.

I am very happy with my light fruitcake. I have always been very happy with it, and, now that I've perfected it, I'm happier still. But I still wanted a dark fruitcake that I could slice up and pass around to all the fruitcake haters out there whenever one of them mentions either doorstops or bricks. And then a few days ago, I was going through the pantry, trying to make some space so that V. wouldn't have another storage-related meltdown, and as I was going through the dried fruit section, I realized that I hadn't done anything with the big bag of prunes that I'd bought recently from Costco. And that got me thinking about my awesome prune cake and how I'd wanted to try it again with a few modifications, and that got me thinking that the prune cake was not entirely unlike a black cake, though with fewer fruits and a much shorter maceration period. And I would be remiss here if I didn't mention that my original prune cake was based on a prune cake by redfox, to whom I cannot link because her blog has now gone underground, most likely because she did something to piss off Big Prune.

Anyway, I made this cake twice to try to get it just the way I wanted it. It was very good the first time, but I decided that I wanted more prunes, more chocolate, more nuts, and more spices. I also further lowered the baking temperature, to make sure that I didn't get any burning. Unfortunately, I used up all of my black walnuts (they'd been in my freezer for almost two years, but they were still delicious) in the first batch. The recipe would almost certainly be even better with black walnuts, but they're expensive and hard to find, and it's very good with good old English walnuts. If you have black walnuts lying around though (and you don't want to just send them all to me, even though I swear I'll give them a good home), you could use half as many of those.

I'll admit that part of the reason for increasing some of the ingredients was to get the recipe to the right size for three smaller (8.5x4.5) loaf pans. The first time I made it, I prepared three pans, but when two were filled, I only had enough batter left to make the two small crescent-moon-shaped cakes you see in one of the pictures.

This is a very dense, rich cake, and perhaps it's not for everyone, just because it's so dense and rich and flavorful (though not overly sweet). Of course, some people have a terrible aversion to prunes, but you can get around that by failing to mention the prunes. I think it's an awesome cake, but it takes a bite or two before you can properly appreciate all the delicious subtleties. I have a few of these wrapped in cloth and soaking in port, and if I remember, I'll report back on how they age.

It occurs to me that the addition of some dried cherries to the fruit mixture would be a good thing, but I forgot to add any. Next time, perhaps.

The Prune Is Not Unlike a Cake Fruitcake

24 oz. prunes
4 oz. candied orange peel
1 oz. candied ginger
1 cup port
2 cups walnuts
8 oz. (2 cups) all purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/4 cup cocoa powder
2 t. ground ginger
2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 nutmeg, grated
8 oz. (1 cup) sugar
8 oz. (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2 t. vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate

Cut each prune in six or eight pieces. Finely chop the candied ginger. Put the prunes, candied ginger, and candied orange peel in a container and add the port. Close the container and macerate overnight. Invert occasionally to make sure all the fruit has a chance to soak up the port.

At some point before you begin the final batter preparation, toast the walnuts at 300 degrees for ten to fifteen minutes, being careful not to burn them.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare your pans.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a bowl. Mix well and reserve. Finely chop the chocolate and reserve.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, cream the butter thoroughly. (See my most recent post for a discussion about butter creaming, etc.) Slowly add the sugar, and continue mixing until well creamed and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs one at a time with the mixer running. Stop to scrape down the bowl, as necessary. Add the vanilla.

With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients. When well incorporated, add the nuts and continue mixing. Add the macerated fruit, then add the chocolate. Scrape down the bowl, make sure the batter is well mixed, and fill the loaf pans. Smooth the top, then put in the oven.

Bake for about an hour at 300, or until the top springs back when lightly pressed. Let cool in the pans for at least half an hour, then remove from the pans and let cool completely. If desired, soak some cotton fabric in additional port, then use it to wrap the cooled fruitcakes. Put in a large plastic bag and close tightly.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Perfect Fruitcake

I have been a bad holiday baker this year. I did make some lebkuchen for the church bazaar, but I haven't made more since, despite L.'s insistence that they were the best ever. There's still time, I suppose, but usually by now I'd have made a lot more. And, truly, this seems like the year to dial back the commercialism and to crank the baking up a notch.

But I reckon there's still plenty of time, and a couple of days ago I set out to try a new fruitcake recipe. For years, my standard fruitcake recipe has been the Fruitcake Cockaigne from Joy of Cooking. It's a very good recipe, and it produces a very good white fruitcake. Even people who don't like fruitcake like it. But this past weekend, I had to make something for the bake sale for my daughter's ballet company's Nutcracker performances, so I decided to make the pound cake from Joy of Cooking, (I followed the recipe exactly, except that I omitted the mace and added a teaspoon each of lemon and almond extracts, and I measured the flour and sugar by weight -- a pound of each, naturally -- rather than by volume. Oh, and use the option where you add the eggs whole, not the option where you separated the whites and then beat them and fold them in: who the hell wants a fluffy pound cake?) and it was truly wonderful. And I remembered (and then verified) that JoC described Fruitcake Cockaigne as "not unlike a pound cake." And I suppose that's true, after a fashion, but if you look at the proportions, the butter and egg content are far short of what's in a pound cake. I wasn't sure that a pound cake with nuts and fruit mixed in was quite what I wanted, but I thought that something even less unlike a pound cake would probably be very good, so I doubled the butter and added an egg so that instead of the classic 1:1:1:1 proportions of butter, flour, sugar, and egg in a true pound cake, I was closer to 0.75:1:1:0.75. Very rich, indeed, for a fruit cake.

I had thought that because the pound cake recipe makes two 9x5 loaf pans, a similar recipe with the addition of four cups of fruits and nuts would require a third pan, but, as it happens, the recipe perfectly filled the two loaf pans.

There are several items that are more important than usual when you're making a pound cake or a not-unlike-a-pound-cake fruitcake:

1. It is not in the nature of this cake to release from the pan easily, so pan preparation is important. I melt shortening in the microwave and apply it to my (metal) loaf pans with a brush. I cut a piece of waxed paper to fit the bottom of the pan, put it in the pan, then brush the whole pan (including the waxed paper) again. Then I flour the pan.

2. You should start out with your butter and your eggs as close to room temperature as possible. I usually do this by leaving the butter out for a couple of hours, but there is also a "soften" setting on my microwave that will work if I forget. You can't let the butter melt, but it shouldn't be cold, either. When I'm starting to do my mise en place, I put my eggs in a bowl and cover them with hot water from the tap. By the time I'm ready to add them, they're usually near room temperature.

3. This is a recipe that you should not rush. But the butter in your mixer and let it cream while you're preparing the pans. Add the sugar gradually, and then let it cream with the butter for five minutes or even longer. Do not worry about overbeating at this point. You will also be baking the cake for a long time at a relatively low temperature.

4. Light fruitcakes sometimes have a problem where the fruits at the edge of the cake burn. Soaking the fruits overnight in rum takes care of this and also gives great flavor.

As it happens, I was a little bit late getting my pans in the oven, so that even after I'd gone out to pick up A. and L. from L.'s ballet and then brought them home for a while, when it was time to take them over to their mother's house, only one of the cakes was done. (I found one nonstick pan and one stick pan, and the nonstick pan, being darker, finishes the cake five to ten minutes earlier.) The other was close, so I turned off the oven, opened the oven door for a few seconds, closed it again, and left. I was letting A. drive so that she could practice for her driver's exam, and she had to unload a bunch of stuff from the car (she flew back home Saturday from a semester in Guadalajara), so it was about forty-five minutes before I was home again. The top of the cake looked slightly odd and flat, but I pulled it out of the oven then and depanned it a few minutes later (both cakes released perfectly). When the cakes were cool, I decided to wrap the other one in cloth and let it soak in more rum for a week or two, but I figured I might as well cut into the other one to make sure it was properly baked.

Words cannot do that cake justice. So, so good. I'm still going to let the other one soak in the rum for a couple of weeks because, heck, it can't hurt, right? Also, fruitcakes are easier to slice thinly after they've absorbed some booze. But this is a cake that you can serve as soon as it's cool, and it will be awesome. Not unlike a pound cake. But better.

Perfect Fruitcake

2 cups mixed dried fruit (suggestion: 1/4 c. candied ginger; 1/2 c. dried blueberries; 1/2 c. dried cranberries; 1/4 c. candied orange peel)
1/2 cup dark rum
2 cups pecans
3/4 lb. butter, at room temperature
1 lb. granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 t. vanilla extract
1 lb. all purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. mace
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cardamom

The day before you're going to bake the fruitcake, combine the dried fruits and the rum. Cover and leave to macerate.

Sometime before you're going to bake the fruitcake, toast the pecans for about 12 minutes at 300 degrees. Be careful not to burn them.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare your pans. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices. Mix well and reserve.

In your mixer, cream the butter thoroughly. Gradually add the sugar to the butter, and let them continue to mix for several minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Scrape the bowl down if necessary. Beat in the vanilla extract.

At low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients. When thoroughly combined, scrape the bowl down again, if necessary. At low speed, add the pecans. Add the fruit and rum mixture and fold in until well blended.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake for about 85 to 95 minutes, or until the cake springs back slightly when pressed.

Remove from oven and let cool in the pans for half an hour. Remove from pans and let rest on cooling rack until thoroughly cooled.

You can slice and serve the cake as soon as it's cool. You can wrap it in plastic and slice it a bit at a time. So far, my cake's two days old, and it tastes the same as on the day it was baked. You can also wrap it in cloth, apply your spirit of choice, and then wrap it airtight for as long as you think wise. Add more spirits occasionally.