Text and images by Stefanie Chao @ Makansutra
I adore traditional Christmas fruitcakes. What’s not to love about this classic confection, studded with plump fruits barely held together by a cake batter, scented with citrus, spices and redolent of the holidays? This charming Christmas treat shows its spirit literally, after a few slices, as it holds enough alcohol from the liberal addition of brandy to render you lightly incoherent and very satisfied indeed!
However, fruitcakes, over the years, have evolved into just another synonym for cement brick because of the stodgy, overly sweetened batter, the rancid nuts that spoil the entire confection, and worst of all, people seem to have forgotten that fruitcake must ideally, never be eaten fresh. It is meant to be made early, lovingly brushed with brandy every few days and then wrapped away to store in a cool, dark place until the flavours develop and meld to produce something that’s nothing short of a full-blown Hallelujah chorus by a choir of angels. Hark the herald angels sing indeed!
For this reason, fruitcakes have to be made at least two weeks in advance and while the steps taken, and the amount of money is indeed a little investment, it sets the tone for sweetly indulgent Christmas. They make wonderful Christmas gifts, all sliced and wrapped up in cellophane then adorned with ribbons, so a big cake actually goes a long way. The usage of Chinese black sugar also provide a hint of sweetness as most of the sugar comes from the preserved fruits already and the separation of the eggs ensures that the cake remains light, moist and not too rich. This cake is different from most traditional ones as the fruits are normally marinated for up to a year in alcohol. To this baker, that effort is futile because the long hours of baking would evaporate most of the alcohol, I prefer to mature the cake by brushing it with brandy after it is baked. Lastly, do make the effort to line the tins properly as instructed because the cake will be spending a long time in the oven— for fruitcakes, the most important rule is to ‘go low and slow’, as high temperatures will cause the cake to have deep cracks because of the weight of fruit in it. Some effort put into planning and execution will result in a wonderful treat for you and your loved ones; go on and try this Luxuriously Festive Fruitcake!
LUXURIOUSLY FESTIVE FRUITCAKE
At least 2 hours before baking: bring 250ml of strong coffee to the boil with 1 vanilla pod, split in half. Once at a fierce boil, pour this over 2 kg of mixed dried fruit—the combination of coffee and vanilla makes this fruitcake extra fragrant. To the empty pot, bring 100ml of freshly squeezed Navel orange juice and 100ml of Welch’s grape juice to the boil. Once at a fierce boil, pour over the dried fruit, mix well and leave to marinate for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Stir in also the zest of 2 Navel oranges and 2 lemons.
1 hour before baking: Soften 500g of Danish or French butter, and bring 12 eggs to room temperature. Toast 400g chopped almonds and let them cool. Prepare your baking tins.
To prepare the tins: liberally butter four 23 x 12.5 x 7.5cm loaf tins or a 13-inch square cake tin with the liners from the butter you softened. Cut enough waxed paper to cover the inner perimeter of the cake tins and fold into quarters. Snip ½-inch squares on the bottom of the paper to facilitate lining the inside perimeter smoothly. Unfold and fit this into the tin perimeter; then cut more paper to line the bottom of the tin. Next, cut enough brown paper to cover the outer perimeter of the cake tins and fold into 3 horizontally to form a triple layer of protection. Wrap this around the tin and secure firmly in place with butcher string.
Sift 4 cups of top flour and set aside. Preheat the oven to 150C and place a tray of water at the last rung. Position the rack above the tray of water. Scrape the seeds out of the halved vanilla pod into the fruit and discard the pod.
To bake, start by separating the eggs. In your mixer, beat the egg whites with ¼ tsp cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Set aside in your refrigerator. In the same mixing bowl (you do not need to wash it), beat the softened butter with 400g Chinese black sugar and 1 tsp fine sea-salt until pale. Add the egg yolks one at a time, and beat well till combined, along with 1 tsp of vanilla extract. Add ½ tsp EACH of ground cinnamon and nutmeg and beat well. You may have to empty the butter mixture out into your biggest deep mixing bowl or even a clean pot. At this point, if it looks like it’s going to curdle, just beat in a little of the sifted flour.
Fold in the marinated fruits and its juices, along with 400g of halved candied cherries as well as the toasted nuts. Gently fold in the sifted flour till just combined. Stir in 1/3 of the egg whites to lighten the batter then fold in the rest gently till there are no more ripples of white. Divide amongst the loaf tins, or pour it into the big tin, then bake for 3.5 to 4 hours till an inserted toothpick has moist crumbs clinging to it. Ovens vary in heat so start testing at the 3-hour mark. Replenish the water in the tray if need be. When removed from the oven, immediately brush some brandy over the surface.
Let the fruitcake cool completely then carefully unmold and brush all sides liberally with brandy. Wrap in foil and store in the fridge. Repeat this every 3 days, for 2 weeks (or at least another 2 times if you are not a fan of alcoholic cakes); then slice into small slivers and watch contentedly as your guests lick the plate clean!