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!