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.
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.