Paul Brians' Fruitcake

December 7, 1996

As featured in the Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2007. Reporter Susan Warren later wrote me to say “We did get your sample and we had great fun in our bureau with a taste test of several fruitcakes. I am pleased to tell you that your fruitcake was the universal favorite!”

Tired of jokes about your fruitcake? My recipe has converted a lot of skeptics. The secret lies in avoiding those disgusting glacéed cherries, citron, etc. that are packaged for use in fruitcakes. This isn't exactly health food, but it's probably considerably closer to what our ancestors enjoyed than the modern stuff.

The Fruit:

Amounts can vary wildly. If you want a dense, fruit-rich cake, you'll need two or three pounds of fruit. Other people like a more cakey texture and can use much less. It's all up to you. But use good dried fruits, not glacéed ones. If you must use "organic" stuff from your health food mart, go ahead; but try to avoid discolored and over-dry fruit. Don't put anything in your cake that isn't tasty eaten separately. My favorites: dried apples, pears, pineapple, date bits, sliced apricot logs (go easy on the apricot--it can overwhelm everything else), golden raisins and currants. I find ordinary raisins boring, but you may like them. I add mango strips and papaya bits for color and extra-rich flavor. A little fresh-grated lemon or orange peel is a nice thing to add. Chop everything up into suitably-sized bits with a heavy, sharp knife and place it in your biggest bowl. A canning kettle will do. You can dust the fruit with powdered sugar if it's too sticky to chop well. Look for packaged fruit bits to save yourself trouble, but read the label: some are mostly raisins.

The Soak:

Pour a cup or two of your favorite liquor or sweet dessert wine over the fruit bits, toss them, and let them sit for a few hours to absorb the liquid. Don't try to submerge them in liquid: just moisten them. This softens the fruit and creates thousands of tiny little sponges that will spread the flavor through your cake much more efficiently than mere soaking after the cake is done. Again, don't cheap out and use wine that's gone bad or is unpleasant-tasting; but don't waste a fine burgundy on your fruitcake either. A dessert wine too sweet for sophisticated palates may do just fine in a fruitcake. Most of the time I use Myers's dark rum. If you are avoiding alcohol, apple juice is a good substitute.

The Nuts:

Walnuts are fine. In a dark fruitcake the nuts mainly add crunch: the spices overwhelm subtler-flavored nuts. But make sure they are fresh. Walnuts turn rancid if not refrigerated. Personally I use pecans because I love them and they look pretty. I splurged on macadamia nuts one year but it was a waste of money because you couldn't detect their buttery flavor in the end result; though I've made a great Hawaiian fruitcake with fresh coconut, macadamia nuts, and dried pineapple. Don't put the nuts in the marinating fruits: they'll lose their crunch. Don't like nuts? Leave 'em out. I like nuts, so I use a lot: a pound or more. I buy halves and don't chop them because I like big pieces, but it's all a matter of taste.

The Pans:

You'll want to prepare your pan or pans ahead of time. Fruitcake cooks a long time and is very sticky, so getting it to come out of the pans cleanly is a trick. You can use loaf pans, ring molds, or whatever you like; but you'll need to line them. Even "nonstick" coatings will be defeated by fruitcake. You can use baking parchment if you have it; but I use a cheap substitute: greased pieces of paper cut from brown paper bags. Don't use waxed paper; it dissolves and shreds. If you're concerned about dyes, you can avoid the printed portions of ordinary shopping bags. Grease the pans, line them with paper (cut in as few pieces as possible, but without wrinkles), then grease the paper and flour it.

The Batter:

This is essentially a classic pound cake with added spices. You can use any recipe you like, but here's mine. If you're avoiding butter, forget it. Substituting margarine or shortening will ruin the recipe. What makes my fruitcakes taste special is that I always begin with fresh whole spices (bought from the local food coop, where I can get just the amount I need), ground in a small coffee mill just before adding them to the recipe. This releases many volatile oils and perfumes which are long gone in commercial ground spices. I use a mill I bought just for spices; if you use your coffee mill be prepared for spiced coffee for a while afterward. Break nutmegs up a bit with a hammer or large knife before grinding them. Cloves and nutmeg are moist, so you may want to grind them with a little of the sugar. Soft "Mexican" cinnamon sticks grind nicely. There is no such thing as "whole" mace. Because fresh-ground spices are so pungent you will not need to increase the amounts below; just roughly measure the spices before grinding. Substitute preground spices if you must, but it won't be the same.

2 cups butter (I prefer unsalted)
2 cups sugar (Don't reduce the sugar! If you want health food, eat rice cakes.)
9 large eggs
4 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cloves
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon mace

Cream the butter together with the sugar. Then beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly until it's light and fluffy. Add cream of tartar as you beat the eggs. In a classic pound cake the eggs are separated and the whites beaten to lighten the dough, but we want a dense texture here. The eggs will provide just enough leavening: no baking powder needed.

Sift the flour together with the salt and ground spices. Sprinkle some of the flour mixture over the soaking fruit and toss it. The idea is keep the fruit from sticking together. If you've been too generous with your soaking liquid, you may have to add more flour.

Add the spiced flour into the wet mixture a cup at a time, beating it only long enough to produce a smooth, fairly thick batter. Try to resist licking the batter if you're concerned about salmonella--but you'll find it hard.

Stir the batter into the fruit, then add the nuts. Use a wooden spoon or just plunge in with your hands and reminisce about what fun it was to make mud pies when you were little. Mix it all up. You will have a mixture that is mostly fruits and nuts with just enough batter to hold it together.

Assembling and Baking:

Place the dough in the lined pans, pressing down to fill in the corners. You can fill the pans almost to the brim because the cake will rise only slightly. Place the pans in the lower third of a 275 degree oven for 1 1/2 to 3 hours, until a knife or testing straw comes out clean. Timing is extremely variable. Small cakes will cook quicker, larger cakes take longer. Test each cake separately, and take it out as soon as your tester comes out clean. You don't want to dry out the cake. If it starts to burn before the inside is done, cover the top with foil. You can't bake a fruitcake in a hurry.

When the cakes are done, let them cool on racks for an hour or so before trying to remove them from the pans. Use a knife to loosen any stuck spots. Sprinkle them all over with your liquor or juice to get the outsides good and moist. Traditionalists will wrap cakes with soaked linen, but I find that enclosing them in plastic bags works as well and is cheaper and more efficient. Let them mature in the refrigerator or other cool space for at least a couple of weeks to blend the flavors. Months is better; but who thinks about making fruitcake in August? If they seem to be getting dry, sprinkle on more liquid, but don't make them sodden. The sugar and alcohol will retard spoilage; but once you start serving this cake you're unlikely to discover how long it might have lasted. It's too irresistible.

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