Advent Calendar: Fruitcake is Good. Really.

Dried fruit -- a variation from classic glazed.

Every family, even mine, has at least one famous holiday recipe. Ours is The Fruitcake. Wouldn’t you know it?

(The blog will take a brief break while you get the fruitcake jokes out of your system.)

All better now?

Yes, this month’s Ancestral Dish is The Fruitcake. Some food historians think fruitcake has become a joke because we’ve lost touch with the flavors that once made it an exotic treat. At our fingertips in the supermarket are out-of-season fruit and rows of exotic seasonings. We no longer thrill to the thought of candied fruit and allspice.

But I think fruitcake is a joke because so few people have actually baked one. A real fruitcake is light-years away from a cellophane-wrapped, brick-textured horror.

And no less an authority than the hallowed Fannie Farmer Cookbook says: “Every kitchen file should have a recipe for a distinguished dark fruitcake.” So there.

Fruitcake in progress.

Grandma Haigney’s fruitcake came from her mom, my dad once said. It is a classic loaf version, as opposed to the golden tube-pan version, as opposed to the remarkable Caribbean variation sometimes known as “black cake.” (Black cake is something I will make someday, if I ever remember to start soaking the fruit six months ahead.)

And Grandma’s cake is really good. The cake part has a terrific gingerbread-like quality.

Around 1971 or ’72, my dad obtained the recipe for The Fruitcake from his oldest sister, setting off a decade of holiday fruitcake baking. At first Dad turned out just enough for the family, but eventually output peaked at somewhere around 60 cakes each Christmas.

Look, people were asking for them. Some asked for seconds, even.

Faced with such demand, Dad grew weary of chopping walnuts by hand. So he splurged on a La Machine, one of the early mass-market food processors available in the U.S., and hot stuff compared to the old Waring blender. Dad lost no time throwing a triple batch of walnuts into his new kitchen toy.

Alas, our knowledge of food processing technique was primitive in those days. (What is this thing you call “pulsing”?) Dad ran the motor far too long, resulting in a bowl full of walnut dust and a string of colorful expletives.

This resulted in an immortal news bulletin delivered by my mother (in all innocence, of course):

“Just wait till you see what that La Machine did to your father’s nuts!”

Ah, Christmas memories.

For the recipe, click through.

Haigney Holiday Fruitcake

This is modified from my dad’s original transcription, which included directions such as “teacup full of milk” and “stir the batter until it looks normal” (my all-time favorite direction). I confess that I dislike glazed fruit, so I substitute the same amount in a combination of dried fruits, usually cherries, apricots, figs, whatever is around. It’s great.

Fruit mixture:
1 cup dark raisins
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup glazed fruit mix (or combination of your favorite dried fruits)
1/2 cup brandy

Cake:
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
2 large eggs
1/4 cup dark molasses
2 tsp. baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup chopped walnuts

The night before: In a large (preferably glass) bowl, mix together dark and golden raisins, glazed (or dried) fruit and brandy. Cover and let stand overnight.

The day you’re baking: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease (or spray with cooking spray) the bottom and sides of one standard-size loaf pan. Line bottom of loaf pan with foil, and spray or grease foil.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together sugar and shortening. Add eggs and mix until well incorporated. Add molasses and mix well.

In a separate medium bowl, sift together baking powder, flour, spices and salt. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk to batter, mixing until well combined. Stir in fruit-brandy mixture and walnuts.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check cake for doneness 30 minutes before end of baking time. Cake is done when a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean or with only a few crumbs.

Cool cake in pan for about an hour. Loosen edges with knife or spatula and invert cake onto plate. Peel off foil from bottom. Cake will keep at least 3 to 4 weeks (or longer!) wrapped tightly in foil and stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.

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