Monday, November 29, 2010

If loving this fruitcake is wrong - I don't want to be right!

Fruitcakes? Really?!?

Yes, really. I'm the first one to make a fruitcake joke (pun intended!), but I'm convinced the reason why so many people detest these annual holiday cake-bricks is that they have experienced so many awful ones. I know chewed on a few dense, tasteless versions. I have also had the extreme pleasure of sinking my teeth into some luscious, choc-full-of-everything-good, festive fruitcakes. (Pictured - Dad chopping up 2+ pounds of roasted pecans for the batter.)

When you see really good fruitcakes in the bakery or story, they might seem pricey considering their size. There's a couple of things at work here. First, they are not meant to be eaten like Moon-Pies, devoured one after the other (that's how everyone eats their Moon-Pies, right?). A good fruitcake is savored in small slices, sometimes with coffee or tea, or with a nice glass of brandy or egg nog. A little goes a long way.

The second reason for the hefty price, the stuff that goes in them are expensive, comparatively speaking, to the ingredients of many other Christmas baked goods. (Pictured - pounds of candied cherries and pineapples - yes some of them are GREEN - and a couple more pounds of golden raisins and dates. In the background - a pound of butter softening up.)

Sometime during Thanksgiving weekend, Dad, Marianne (aka "Sister") and I make up our fruitcakes for holiday entertaining. When mom was still with us, she generally made them at this time, so that they would have a month or so to cure with the wine-soaked cheese cloths prior to that first cut. We use the same recipe that mom and my grandma used - it came from my Aunt Helen, actually my great-aunt, she was one of grandpa's sisters and never turned down a cold beer - my kind of girl! (Pictured - creaming the butter before the dry ingredients get mixed in.)
While the recipe is not complicated, it's not something you can throw together in a few minutes. There are a number of steps, beginning with chopping the pounds of nuts and fruits that will get folded into the batter. The batter itself, which uses a pound of butter and ten eggs (how bad can that be?!?) flour, baking soda, a little mace, vanilla and sugar, really puts the test to any mixer. I'm sure when Aunt Helen started making this recipe, she probably didn't have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer like I have, and probably used the biggest bowl she could find and a wooden spoon. Even now, the mixer will only take the batter so far. the fruit and nuts must be mixed in by hand. (Pictured - Dad getting a workout by mixing pounds of nuts and fruit into the stiff cake batter and making sure that each part of the batter gets a little bit of everything.)
One recipe makes four standard loaf pans. Once the pans are greased, the batter goes in almost to the top - this cake does not rise much - it's too heavy! Once the batter is in the pans, we decorate the tops of the cakes with pecans (that makes it fancy!) and in the oven they go. These bake in a somewhat slow oven (285 degrees) for two hours. You know they are done when they are lightly golden on the tops.

Pictured is the finished product, right out of the oven. I can't tell you how awesome the smell is in the house while these are baking. There is something very old-fashioned about these cakes, and something very comforting. Like most heirloom food, they remind me of the people I loved who make these cakes before it was my turn to do so. So, I look back and know that my mom is, like always, in the kitchen with us as we bake these wonderful traditions. And I look forward, knowing that these cakes will be shared as we celebrate Christmas, and all that it means, with the people we love today and are fortunate to have close.

After the cakes cool for a couple of hours I remove them from the pans and let them sit on a baking rack for another hour or so. Then it is time to give them their first wrap. Wine is poured in a bowl (I like to use a white semi-dry) and cheesecloth is soaked in the wine. The cloth is then wrapped around the cake, as the wine will gradually be absorbed. Then, I wrap it in Saran Wrap, then in foil, and in the fridge it goes for a couple of weeks. It will come out again and for a second soaking of the cheesecloth in wine, and wrapped back up.

This is a fruitcake to love!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Come Cook With Me - Let's Make Golabki! (Stuffed Cabbage)

Let's face it, who can turn down a GIGANTIC head of cabbage for only a dollar? When walking through Detroit's Eastern Market on Saturday, I was bombarded with huge cabbages, cauliflower, squash of every variety and literally tons and tons of beautiful Michigan apples. I couldn't buy it all, but for my money, the huge cabbage was a must-have!

I love cabbage. It gets a pretty bad wrap, and it seems more and more, the hearty cabbage seems to be fading from the everyday culinary landscape. I'm not on a cabbage crusade by any stretch of the imagination, but there are a couple of things that one can make with cabbage that are among life's greatest pleasures. A hundred variations on cole slaw would be one, and golabki (this is the Polish word), or stuffed cabbage is another.

Often, I will hear people say things like, "making golabki is so much work - I don't bother anymore." Yes, it's work to make stuffed cabbage, just like it's work to make bread, or cook a roast, or make mashed potatoes, so what's the difference?? Either you're going to work and make stuff, or you can fill your pantry with shoes and just go out to eat all the time.

So, I had the big, beautiful head of cabbage. Now I had to do something with it. I made up my mind we (meaning dear sister Marianne, Dad and myself) would make golabki. With the holidays coming up, there would be any number of occasions where we could serve them. So, yesterday Dad went to our favorite Polish butcher - Joyview Meats (on Joy Rd. just east of Telegraph in Redford) and got two pounds of pork and one pound of beef (chuck) ground together. When I got home from work, I sauteed one large onion in butter with a little salt and pepper and then added the onion, a cup of cooked rice, a couple of crumbled chicken bouillon cubes and some salt and pepper to the meat. It went in a ziplock back and back in the fridge.

When I got home today, it was time to begin. With the meat filling ready to go, we got into the kitchen. I got the largest pot I have (I use it for canning) and filled it two-thirds with water and got in on the stove. You really can't start until you have your water at full boil. Dad cut the core (stem) out of the bottom of the cabbage. This helps the leaves to release when they are in the hot water. We put out some towels and got out the food scale. (Photo - there's Dad carefully lifting the cabbage leaves off the head as they blanch in the water and soften up a little)

Once the leaves come out of the pot, they have to be trimmed before they can be used. This was my job. You take the leaf and cut the center vein off the outside. This vein is always tough, and it prevents the leaf from rolling easily, so it really needs to be removed. With the vein off, the entire leaf is now the same thickness and the golabki are more uniform. But be careful, these leaves are hot coming out of the water and you don't want to tear them while trimming. Practice makes perfect! (Photo - me trimming the outside center vein of the cabbage leaf)

Once the leaf is trimmed, it's ready to roll! You can see the photo of the meat mixture (pork, beef, rice, onion and seasoning). Determining how much filling to put in each leaf depends on how large your leaves are and how much filling you have. We had nice, big leaves - so after some reviewing, we decided on 3 1/2 ounces of filling per leaf. As you continue to peel away at the cabbage, the leaves naturally get smaller, so the last few we did we only put in 3 ounces of filling.

It is usually easier to portion out the filling in advance. This way, when the cabbage leaves start coming to the table, you can start rolling. Sister was in charge of the rolling, and using a food scale she made up the filling portions and was ready to go! (Photo: Marianne at the table making up the filling for the golabki)

There is a little technique to rolling the golabki. Marianne has it down - you start with the filling at the bottom and roll once around, then you fold in the sides, and complete the rolling. This makes a nice, tight seal for the filling and totally surrounds it with cabbage goodness.

Notice (photo left) that before the golabki are put into the roasting pan, the pan is lined with cabbage leaves. These are either the outside leaves that are torn, or very thick and wouldn't work well for a roll. By doing this the golabki are sort of kept in a cabbage cocoon - never touching the sides of the roasting pan. It helps prevent browning of the golabki and infuses even more cabbage flavor.

Once the roasting pan is full, then the golabki is topped with it's tomato sauce. Nothing complicated here - we had a total of 18 golabki. I used two cans of condensed tomato soup along with one can of water. Heat in a sauce pan on the stove, and then ladle over the golabki.

After the tomato soup, sprinkle a little brown sugar on top (maybe 3 or 4 tablespoons). This gives just a hint of sweetness and deepens the flavor. It also cuts a bit of the acid from the tomato soup and the cabbage.

Just like the bottom of the pan, put cabbage leaves on top of the golabki once you have finished with the tomato soup and brown sugar. This will insure that the rolls don't brown from contact with the foil (which will go on top of the pan) and it will keep that cabbage flavor circulating while it bakes.

Finally, the golabki are ready to go in the oven. For the first bake, put them in for one and a half hour at 350 degrees. When you take them out, keep them covered. Let them cool. Put them in the refrigerator. DO NOT EAT THEM!! They haven't achieved their full potential - they must sit for a day (or two) and then, and only then, can you put them back in the oven for a second bake - one hour at 325 degrees, and enjoy every succulent bite! Or, you can put them in the freezer (like we're doing tonight) for a later time.