Here in the United States fruitcake is generally the butt of seasonal jokes about its density and unpopularity.
This much is true: Fruitcake is almost comically heavy — all that dried fruit bound by a soupçon of cake batter, redolent with spices, brandy and rum. But if you forget that it’s a fruitcake, it just smells like Christmas.
Because fruitcake becomes more flavorful with age, fall is the time to start making it. In one Panamanian version, the fruit needs to soak first for at least 30 days in a combination of brandy, dark rum and port, although there also has been developed a quick method for infusing the flavor into the fruit. Then bakes the cakes just after Panama’s Mother’s Day on Dec. 8, so they’re ready to deliver to customers by mid-month.
Whether it’s a classic British recipe or the Panamanian variation, alcohol is a key part of the process. Fruitcake relies on soaking the fruits well in advance of baking, while the British version is baked first, then brushed every few days with brandy or rum in a process called “feeding” the fruitcake. Either method allows the liquor to help develop deep flavors over the course of weeks or months. Most home bakers start talking about making theirs in October, mainly so they can soak as much brandy into them as they can, it’s a real focal point of our Christmas.
But what about that aged cake; is it safe to eat when it has been sitting around awhile? It is believed so, because liquor and sugar are preservatives. In England, long-term storage was once the rule: A fruitcake traditionally made up the top tier of a wedding cake and was saved to be served as a christening cake. As the U.K. has become much more secular, this is less common. I also think people have become more squeamish about saving a fruitcake for years between a wedding and christening. There’s a perception that it’s a bit unhygienic.
USDA guidelines state that fruitcake can be stored for one month at room temperature, six months in the refrigerator and a year in the freezer. A food safety researcher at North Carolina State University said in 2014 that the low moisture content of dried and candied fruits, plus the preserving properties of alcohol, could make fruitcake shelf-stable for at least several months.
Hygiene concerns aside, the real problem that most people seem to have with fruitcake is simple: the candied fruit.
It’s honestly the citron and mixed peel that most people object to. They’re strong and bitter-flavored. One baker makes fruitcake with dried pineapple, apricots, cranberries, golden raisins, apples and dates: in other words, their favorite dried fruits, ones they like to snack on by themselves.
Although a celebrated Southern food expert famously declared her dislike of fruitcake many years ago, included a recipe for Georgia Fruitcake — in her classic 1986 cookbook “New Southern Cooking.” It is a clear example of her point: packed with dried peaches and pecans, then moistened with peach nectar and brandy, creating a heady, peach-laden loaf that’s golden and inviting, without a dyed green candied cherry in sight.
For Stamps, however, that multicolored and candied mix of cherries, lemon and orange peel, citron and pineapple is a requirement, though she prefers to chop it finely. That’s the only kind of fruit used in Panama, along with raisins. Sometimes people might use prunes or dried dates, but that would only be if they couldn’t find the other fruit. It is mixed with mincemeat, an aromatic blend of apples and raisins, plus spices typically used in tarts and pies.
She also has a special ingredient that she’s able to find only in Panama: a flavoring called Esencia de Cake Mix, which tastes like a cross between vanilla and cherry extracts. “I’ve tried to find it in the United States,” Stamps says, “but I can’t, so I just get it by the gallon when I’m in Panama. I think it adds a flavor of home.”
The most intriguing difference between the fruitcake commonly made in the Americas and the U.K. version is the baking method. Although the ingredients, proportions and even oven temperature are largely similar, a British fruitcake, which is encased in parchment paper while in the oven, relies on a long, slow bake, sometimes for more than four hours. That can seem like a mistake when compared with an American or Caribbean recipe, where the baking time generally clocks in at just over an hour.
It’s a difference that puzzles bakers on both sides of the pond. The longer cooking time should give more depth of flavor, possibly due to extra caramelization in the oven while American cakes might have a touch more leavening in the batter, yielding a less dense cake that bakes more quickly than its British counterpart.
Source: washingtonpost.com, 10-9-2016