The monkey makes happy chipping sounds when I unwrap the fruits. We have a ritual, he and I. In New York, as the arbiter of all things sweet and sugary, he preferred to eat a cherry first, expressing his pleasure with chips and catlike purrs. Now he paces impatiently on the back of a chair as I hand him one. He sniffs it, glowers at me, and hurls it to the floor. Bits of candied pineapple, orange, and lemon fall beside the rejected cherry. Signora Dolce's fruits have spoiled us all.
1971 Unable to find good candied fruits, I resolve to make them. Haven't cooks candied fruits for centuries? Whether the sweetener is honey or sugar, the preserving process, though tedious, is simple: You steep fruit in increasingly stronger solutions of hot syrup that replace the fruit's natural moisture and prevent spoilage. In June, I begin with cherries, changing and strengthening the syrup daily, and watch the fruits fatten nicely on their high-sugar diet. Just one week in, disaster strikes. Overnight, floating islets of mold form. Should I have used more sugar? I toss the batch and finally my luck improves with pineapple. But best of all are candied orange and lemon peels, which soak up syrup so quickly they don't have time to spoil. With these, I can bake a fruitcake that makes all of us purr.
1978 Almost toothless now, my severest critic can no longer chew candied fruits, but he still perches on a kitchen chair to wait for a spoonful of batter. Our world has changed in other ways, too. Now I have a fruitcake assistant in the form of my 6-year-old son, who loves to cut parchment paper to fit the baking tins, measure and sift the flour and spices, and break eggs just as a Basque chef taught him to. I miss these holiday baking sessions, and long after he leaves home I ask him in a wistful moment what he remembers. "The shot of rum you poured for me and how soused I felt," he says without skipping a beat. I'm shocked. "I never would have done that! Maybe a tiny sip, but surely not a glass." But it's his fruitcake story, and he sticks to it.
1988 After years of writing about French cuisine and reviewing French restaurants in California, I am in France for the first time. Everything is fresh yet oddly familiar. In Nice, I fall hard for socca and wonder why I never find these addictive chickpea-flour cakes in California. (In the next decade, I will.) Squeezing into La Merenda beside a cute Frenchman, I learn the trick of removing mussel meat with an empty shell. On market day on the Cours Saleya, eager shoppers snap up the season's first cèpes and girolles, but I'm transfixed by a stall with bins of sparkling fruits confits. Though not the flawless jewels on display in the window of Henri Auer, they taste heavenly, cost much less, and sweeten the finest fruitcakes we've enjoyed since moving west. Two years later, on my first visit to Italy, I luck out again at an outdoor market in Ravenna.
2008 The card, a Gary Larson classic, depicts a goofy manger scene with the caption, "Unbeknownst to most theologians, there was a fourth wise man, who was turned away for bringing a fruitcake." Inside is a message from my son and his wife: "Don't worry. We'd never turn you or your fruitcake away from our door." But this year they might. We are living in Arizona and still finding our way around the markets. The candied-fruit situation is hopeless. "How about these?" My husband holds up a package of cactus-fruit jellies. I think he's kidding. A new friend returns from a summer in northern Michigan with a fresh crop of dried Montmorency cherries. I'm captivated by their tart-sweet complexity and decide to pair them in a cake with currants, golden raisins, orange-flavored cranberries, and a few luscious Arizona-grown Medjool dates. This is a far departure from my mother's cake, but the recipe is wonderfully flexible and forgiving. I'm not ready to give up the sparkle of candied fruits entirely, so I splurge on a pound of mail-order Italian orange peel and citron from an Oakland market. Four glacéed apricots left over from a birthday go in, too. The cake is the darkest I've ever baked, and I'm a little nervous when I bring it out during the holidays. "It's wonderful, as always," my son reassures me. My husband lifts a glass of port in a salute. "One of the best fruitcakes you've ever made." He always says that. And I smile.
THE BEST CHRISTMAS CAKE
Makes 2 cakes
Active time: 40 min
Total time: 2 days (includes fruit macerating time, but does not include aging)
If you are mystified by the tradition of Christmas cakes (a.k.a. fruitcakes) and can't understand the passion some people hold for these fruit-filled confections, then this is the cake that will make it all clear. Although one bite is all it will take to sell you on this recipe, further bites will be impossible to resist.
The secret to this cake's seductive charms lies in the quality of the candied and dried fruits you use. If you have access to candied or glacéed fruits from Italy or southern France, consider yourself extremely lucky. If not, we have included an excellent mail-order source for imported candied fruit in the Cooks' Notes below. For the dried fruit, Trader Joe's is a great source. Although 3½ pounds of fruit, half candied and half dried, is called for, the recipe is flexible, and you can get by with 3 pounds total. But it's best to keep the proportion of candied to dried fruit the same.
Traditional English fruitcakes are often buried under layers of marzipan and fudgy frostings as thick as the cake itself. Instead, this one gets an almond glaze that lets you eat the cake and see it, too.
For Cakes:1 pound candied orange strips, coarsely chopped (3 cups)
6 ounces candied citron, coarsely chopped (1 cup)
6 ounces candied pineapple, glacéed apricots, or glacéed cherries, coarsely chopped (3/4 cup)
8 ounces dried Montmorency (tart) cherries, coarsely chopped (1 1/3 cups)
8 ounces (2 cups) dried currants
4 ounces golden raisins, coarsely chopped (3/4 cup)
4 ounces dried orange-flavored cranberries, coarsely chopped (1 1/3 cups)
4 ounces (about 6) dried Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup dark rum or brandy, plus more for soaking cheesecloth
4 ounces (1 cup) slivered almonds, toasted (see Cooks' Notes for toasting instructions), or hazelnuts, toasted and any loose skins rubbed off, then finely chopped
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring), divided
1 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for loaf pans
1 cup packed brown sugar (preferably dark)
1 cup granulated sugar
5 large eggs
2 tablespoons whole milk, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
For Icing:2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
2 to 4 tablespoons whole milk
EQUIPMENT:2 (9- by 5- by 3-inch) loaf pans; 2 (20- by 18-inch) pieces cheesecloth
- Combine all fruits in a large bowl and stir in rum. Cover with plastic wrap and let fruits macerate (steep) at cool room temperature overnight.
- Preheat oven to 275°F with rack in middle. Butter loaf pans and line with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on long sides.
- Stir nuts and 1/2 cup flour into fruit mixture. Sift remaining 1 1/2 cups flour with spices and baking powder into another bowl.
- Beat butter with an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy, then beat in brown sugar followed by granulated sugar, and beat until well incorporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 additions, beating just until batter is smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon milk and almond extract.
- Pour batter over fruit mixture and mix with a wooden spoon or your hands until well combined. Divide batter evenly between 2 pans, pressing batter down firmly (especially in corners) and smoothing tops. Lightly brush tops of cakes with remaining tablespoon milk (to prevent burning).
- Bake until golden and a wooden toothpick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
- Let fruitcakes cool in pans on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Turn out cakes onto rack and carefully peel off parchment paper, then let cool completely, about 3 hours.
- Soak cheesecloth in a bowl with enough additional rum to thoroughly wet it, then wring out cheesecloth. Wrap loaves in cheesecloth first, then in foil, and then in resealable bags, forcing out excess air. Refrigerate for 3 to 4 days, then unwrap cakes and check cheesecloth. If it's dry, then repeat soaking in rum and wringing, and rewrap cakes. Keep cakes refrigerated for at least 1 week before icing and serving (see Cooks' Notes).
Make Icing Before Serving:
- Sift confectioners' sugar into a small bowl, then whisk in almond extract and just enough milk so icing spreads easily. Ice loaves using a spoon or an offset spatula, then chill briefly to set icing, about 30 minutes.
- Cakes slice best when cold. Cut into thin slices, cutting only as many slices as you plan on serving. Arrange slices on a plate and let them come to room temperature before serving.
- To toast nuts, spread them out on a rimmed sheet pan and bake in the middle of a 350°F oven until they are golden and aromatic, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the size and type of nut. If the nuts are dark to begin with, you will need to cut one open as you roast to check that the interior has turned golden.
- The best mail-order source for beautiful candied fruits free of preservatives is Market Hall Foods in Oakland, California.
- Although the fruitcakes can be eaten after only 1 week of aging, they develop a much richer taste if aged a month or more in the refrigerator. Unwrap and check the cheesecloth once a week and if it's dry, repeat soaking it in rum and wringing it out before rewrapping and refrigerating the cakes. They can also be frozen. In either case, don't ice until just before serving.
In 1958 Caroline Bates joined the staff of Gourmet, whose offices at the time were in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel in New York. She spent the next 51 years with the magazine, primarily as a writer specializing in food history, travel, and restaurants. Moving to California in the late 1960s, she and her photographer-husband wrote a Sunset guidebook to a still-wild Baja California and produced dozens of Gourmet articles, many of them about native foods and great American places. In 1974, Bates began a restaurant column for Gourmet that chronicled the rise of farm-fresh California cuisine; the sushi craze; and the growing diversity of international cooking in the West Coast's large cities. She now lives in southeastern Arizona, where chiles fire up her cooking and bobcats snooze on her patio.