Fruitcakes are the only baked goods I’ve ever heard of whose recipes include words like, “aging,” “ripening,” and even “feeding” (the cake, not the recipient). It seems that the crowning achievement in the fruitcake world is to make one that outlives you!
These cakes were traditionally made at the time of the fall harvest, and kept as a symbol of good luck until next year’s harvest feast. In my family, they’re generally kept in the freezer and nibbled over a month or two. But they do get better over time, and they really can last indefinitely if preserved correctly.
My starting recipe is no secret – I use the “Dark Fruitcake” recipe from Joy of Cooking, divided into two loaf pans. The recipe is dense and sweet, chock full of candied and dried fruits and nuts and fragrant with molasses and brown sugar.
Baking fruitcake is actually a bit of a challenge, as they ooze out into the oven, burn around the edges, and refuse to budge from the pan. My kitchen looks like an explosion at a candy factory, and the cakes end up resembling bandaged relics from a crime scene.
Every year, I’m absolutely convinced that I’ve totally ruined them, and every year they turn out just fine. But this year, I must say, they were a total flop, no doubt about it. It was all I could do not to throw them in the trash, but like every year, I pressed on, wondering aloud, “Why anyone would want to eat this brick is beyond me!”
However, I suspect that fruitcake’s real appeal comes in the finishing touches. Once the cakes are cool, I prick them with a toothpick and pour about 1/2 cup of spirits slowly over each one so that it soaks in the holes. Next, I wrap the cakes in cheesecloth and store them individually in airtight plastic bags. I like to make them as early as I can each December, so that by Christmas, the flavors have infused and they’re well ripened.
By the time the cakes are opened, even I won’t be able to resist a bite! The aroma is heavenly, and the flavor is sweet and mellow with a hint of spirits smoothing out the tang of the fruit. All earlier sentiments are forgotten, and the mess is long forgiven.
If there’s a fruitcake lover in your family, try surprising them this year with a home-baked fruitcake. I guarantee it’ll be a big hit and well worth the effort!
For preserving the cakes, I do one with brandy and one with golden rum, but you could also use bourbon or your favorite liqueur (or nothing at all). You can also use regular fruit juice, but unpreserved cakes, and cakes made with fruit juice, need to be frozen or eaten within a few days.
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