Thursday, December 25, 2008

Grandma Vera’s World War II Fruit Cake

Zola: If you know me at all, you know that I am always completely unprepared for Christmas. I never send out Christmas cards, I usually find myself shopping for presents on Christmas eve, hell, this year--uh, yesterday--I had a moment when I thought, "holy crap, we don't have any food in the fridge. what are we going to eat tomorrow?! all the stores will be closed!" My brain then proceeded to argue with itself around the pros and cons of going shopping for xmas dinner and me and Guy just finding someplace that would serve us dinner after he got off work. For the record, shopping-for-dinner-brain won but only because of this interminable snow that won't seem to stop is making it hard to get anywhere. Otherwise, going-down-to-Chinatown-for-dinner-brain would have definitely won. So it is precisely for these reasons that I am today--Christmas day--making Betha's fruitcake.

Betha: I hesitated to send in a story about fruit cake, a confection that seems to have fallen from favor other than as the object of much ridicule. However, the preparation of my Grandma Vera’s fruit cake recipe is a ritual I conduct every year in early December. It is still cherished by my family, especially by my sister and brother-in law; indeed, it is the only gift to them that I know will not end up in the Goodwill box the day after Christmas.

Grandma Vera was a wonderful cook, the kind who is experimental and who builds upon tradition without being confined by it. I don’t know where she got her recipe for the fruit cake, but I’m sure that she modified it according to her tastes—a characteristic I have certainly inherited from her. The legend goes that she sent a Christmas package, which included her freshly-baked fruit cake, to her son Graham, who was in the navy, fighting on the South Pacific front in World War II. In that era, everybody’s mom baked fruit cake and many of the sailors’ care packages contained variations on the theme. Grandma Vera’s cakes were voted the best of breed by all the men in Graham’s unit.

Here is the original recipe, with annotations:

Prepare the pans: Grease tins (small bread pans); line with waxed paper and grease again. This recipe makes 4 cakes approx. 3 ½” X 5 ½” X 2 ½”. I have some wonderful old steel tins made in England, most likely just for this purpose.

4 ½ pounds of mixed candied fruit: Place in a large bowl and sprinkle a bit of the flour (below) to coat. I still use 1 pound of the standard pre-mixed candied fruit, but for the rest of the amount, I buy a variety of dried, un-sulphured fruits and cut them into little bits. This year, I used papaya, pineapple, dates, sour cherries, and strawberries. Because the fruit is dry and not candied, I skip the sprinkling of flour and marinate the mix overnight in 2-3 T of brandy or whiskey.

1 cup butter
1 ½ cup sugar
4 eggs Blend butter, sugar & eggs until light and airy.

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cloves Mix dry ingredients together. I use allspice instead of cloves—a personal preference.

½ cup grape juice

Add the grape juice and flour mix alternately to the butter-sugar-egg blend. I use organic frozen concentrate and mix it double strength.
Fill the greased tins ¾ full.

Bake: Start in a cold oven. Bring the temperature up to 250◦ during the first hour. Total baking time is 2 ½ hours.

Cool pans on rack. Remove cakes and carefully peel away the waxed paper.
Package the cakes: Wrap each cake in a square of cheese cloth as if it were a present. With a pastry brush, bathe all sides of the cloth-covered cake in alcohol.* Allow to dry for a few hours before wrapping in a layer of plastic wrap and then a layer of foil. My family has eaten the fruit cake six months later and found it still to be quite palatable.

*a note about the alcohol: It is traditional to use brandy. Since my funds were always limited, I used cheap brandy for years until my brother-in-law recommended that I spend just a tad more to buy Jamieson’s Irish Whiskey—a compromise less offensive to his tastes and reasonable for my budget. Maybe one of these years, I’ll splurge on some really good brandy.

Zola: So my cake is in the oven right now. Guy and I are heading down to my parents tomorrow. I'll take it down there and let you know how it turns out. A quick note about some changes I made: you'll notice I only had a standard bread loaf pan (9x5)--I halved Betha's recipe and it fit well in there. It's also a teflon pan, so I didn't bother with the waxed paper, but did grease the pan. A little extra butter never done me wrong. Finally, I happen to be quite allergic to cherries (a terrible affliction that hit me in my late 20's) and most of those candied fruit blends have cherries in them, so I took Betha's advice, channeled Grandma Vera and let myself be swayed by the spirit of experimentation. I used dried mangos (??? I know. It's totally anti-fruitcake and if I had it to do over, I would have grabbed dates), dried cranberries, turkish apricots, currants, candied lemon, and candied ginger. I also used--are you sitting down for this?--pomegranate juice instead of grape juice. It is clearly christmas craziness over here. I blame it on the Jamieson's. 


Zola said...

The flavor of the cake was great (although I still think going with dates would have made it truly amazing). It tasted so nice with a bit of cream, I will definitely do this again for the holidays. However, it was really crumbly and wouldn't hold together when we cut it--almost like there was too much fruit and not enough batter? Or perhaps it was because I didn't use any of the syrupy candied fruit? I'll check in with Betha.

Betha said...

As I discussed with Zola, it may be that the fruit cake is designed to sit in storage for a month or more. I usually bake them right after Thanksgiving, so the earliest they get opened and sliced is a month later.--sometimes two months. For me, the cake has always sliced clean with a sharp knife. Thin (1/4") slices are best and let light shine through the fruit --almost like edible stained glass.
Thanks for trying it out, Zola!

Zola said...

Absolutely, Betha! And I am completely game for trying again next year (and making them earlier). The other thing Betha and I talked about was that, although Betha only uses some pre-candied fruit, she does use some and that brings simple syrup and moisture to recipe that I was missing. I want to stress that the flavor of this cake was amazing and I can't wait to perfect it!