Having pondered close to a hundred recipes, we've come to something of a revelation: a fruitcake is like a stereo system. You can play loose and easy with the ingredients but in the end the overall quality will never exceed that of the weakest component. So, if your fruit, nuts or spices are quality it won't mater if you soak the whole cake in century-old Rémy, it'll still be a door stop.
The good news is that next to instant brownies, fruitcake may be the easiest thing you'll ever bake. Heck, gathering the ingredients is most of the work and that's no work at all.
|Now, our Free Range Fruitcake bypasses too fakingly sweet nuclear gummy fruits in favor of the honest flavors of dried fruits. Now, we're going to need a cup of both golden raisins and currants. Now golden raisins are made from Thompson seedless grapes like regular raisins only they're not left to darken on the vine. Currants, as opposed to the gooseberry cousin of the same name, are actually the dried version of the tiny Zante grape.||
1 cup each: Golden Raisins
|Now, we're also going to need a half cup of each of dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries and dried apricots.||
Now most dried fruits especially those with yellow or orange flesh are treated with sulfides which stabilize the color and stave off microbial attack. Now, despite the scary name, sulfides are considered safe since our bodies metabolize them and toss them out with the dishwater if you get my drift. But some folks, asthmatics in particular, can suffer allergic reactions to sulfides. Now the labeling laws in this country are pretty strict so if you know you're sulfide sensitive, just check the package. It'll be the last thing on there.
Oh by the way, the only candy presence on our recipe is a quarter cup of candied ginger.
1/4 cup Candied Ginger
A group of Trappist
monks in Arkansas now earn their
living from making fruit cakes ...
they used to make concrete blocks.
Fruitcakes of yore included alcohol for its preservative powers. Now our cake may not be headed for long-term storage, but alcohol still has several roles to play—which is why our four cups of dried fruit, along with a quarter cup of candied ginger, and the chopped zest of one lemon and one orange will be spending the night in one cup of gold rum. Now besides rehydrating the fruit, the rum will liberate alcohol soluble flavor compounds that are locked away in there. If you've ever seen a tomato sauce recipe with vodka in it, same principle. Now, in the finished cake the alcohol will intensify flavors by caring aromas from the mouth up to the nose. Don't forget, smell is half the tasting.
4 cups dried fruit
Now, if over night is not an option just put everything in a microwave safe bowl and nuke it on high for about 5 minutes. The results won't be exactly the same but you'll get close.
Meats and vegetables are "marinated"
Time to go nuts.
GUEST: Brad and Elliot Ellis, Pecan Growers
[dons a hard hat and stands under a pecan tree that is being shaken by a power shaker, nuts fall over him] Whew.
|A good fruitcake is as nutty as ... well, there you go. But funnily enough, my favorite fruitcake fodder, pecans, aren't true nuts. Their members of the hickory family which makes them drupes. A drupe being a fleshy fruit containing a shell encased seed or cotyledon. Now, in the case of pecans we wait until that fleshy part falls away and then we harvest the shell which we crack open to get the seed or cotyledon.||
|In other drupes, however—mangos, peaches, cherries—it's the flesh we're after. We throw the seeds away. And when it comes to blackberries and raspberries which are just little kind of clusters of drupes, we eat the whole thing.||
Of course, the one drawback to drupes is that they can be kind of hard to get to. Stupid thing. Come on. Come on. Augh...
ELLIOT ELLIS: What are you doing?
AB: Well, I'm trying to open this stup- ... you're nut, probably. Yeah. Um, father, son, you must be the Ellis boys, right?
AB: Yeah, heh, how ya doin'? Um, I wasn't going to keep these. It's just research, really. How do you open these darn things?
EE: Oh, you just work on it a little bit there.
AB: What is that?
EE: That's a sheller, a sort of a hand sheller.
AB: Where do you get that kind of thing?
EE: Oh, you can get them at the local hardware store.
AB: Local hardware store. Yeah? Oh, all right. I got to see about that.
BRAD ELLIOT: Who was that guy?
Unless you're really into nuts, shelling out $20 for a gizmo that doesn't do anything but shell nuts is in itself nuts. No. The only tool in our kitchen that gets by on single duty is a fire extinguisher. Everything else [finds a clamp] ... ha, ha ... has got to multi-task.
The way we see it, if you're only going to make fruitcake once a year—and let's face it, most of us are only going to make fruitcake once a year—you might as well go all out and shell your own nuts. It's not that there's anything wrong with shelled and bagged nuts, it's just that these are a whole lot better. Now since we're going to break these up before they go into the final cake, I don't really worry too much about getting the meats out whole. But, what you do want to avoid is—[gets a whole piece of meat out of the nut] oh, of course it's nice when it happens—you want to avoid getting shells in the nuts. Not only are they incredibly bitter but in the mouth, it's kind of like chewing on shrapnel.
|Now when it comes down to actual yields, it really depends on the variety of pecan. But on average, you can count on about a cup and a half of meat for every pound of shell nuts. Now how many are you going to need? Well, we'll get to that. But I have to admit, personally I never sit down without cracking two pounds worth.||
1 & 1/2 cups per pound
|Now you'll get 10 times more flavor out of your nuts, or drupe seeds, if you toast them before adding them to cake. But beware. Because of their high fat content, these little babies burn quicker than elves on Miami beach. So, 300 degrees for 15 minutes then check on them, shaking, every two to three minutes there after until they reach a golden mahogany color. And remember, if you can smell nuts, or drupe seeds, in the kitchen they're burned.||
300° for 15 min
Sealed in freezer bags and
frozen, un-shelled pecans
and walnuts will keep for 1 year.
Shelled nuts can be frozen for up to 4 months.
GUEST: Patty Erd, Spice Merchant
Everyone owes something to spices. The world, for instance, owes its geo-political, cultural and economic shape to man's eternal quest for spices. A good fruit cake owes its depth of flavor, its holiday-ness to good spices. As for us cooks, well, we owe it to spices to handle them correctly, store them correctly and acquire them from reputable sources ...
... like Patty Erd here who runs the Spice House outside of Chicago with her husband, Tom.
AB: Hi, Patty.
PATTY ERD: Hi.
AB: So, why should I bother buying whole spices when I can buy everything ground up at the grocery store?
PE: Because then you have the definite advantage of being able to grind your spices, releasing their essential oils when you want to and also you can store them for long term for a period of several years until you need to grind them.
AB: Okay, so once they're ground it's like a ticking time bomb. It's all over, right?
PE: Yeah. Spices then they've released their volatile oils and they start to dissipate immediately after grinding.
AB: Okay. And down at the grocery store they ... the stuff that's grind up in the tin even though it's had an air tight container it's pretty much over?
PE: Generally speaking ... yeah, the FDA doesn't put any shelf life on spices. So in the store, it's probably not very fresh.
AB: Okay. Patty, you've been kind enough to set up everything I need for my fruitcake. I've got cinnamon, clove, ginger, allspice. But I can't help but notice everything is whole except the cinnamon. How come?
PE: When you buy cinnamon sticks in the store they're from Indonesia and they're a very low-grade, top part of the cinnamon tree. When we grind cinnamon, we have the lower part of the bark and that's where the really 'macho' cache of
cinnamon bark is.
AB: Ah, macho bark. Heh, heh.
PE: Macho bark. We'll show you some macho bark later. And that's what gets ground.
AB: That's another show. Another show. Um, cloves. Those are actually, what, little spiky things. Sexually ...
PE: They're the unopened bud of a clove tree and when they flower they produce a beautiful pink flower.
AB: So, as long as it stays in its dried flower form ...
AB: ... it's, the flavor's protected.
PE: It's protected for several years.
AB: Okay. Great. Now, I don't think much of America, I know I haven't bought my ginger this way. That's just a, uh, that's a rhizome, right? That's the ...
PE: That's a rhizome. Correct. People think it's a root but it's a rhizome.
AB: ... root. It's a rhizome.
Rhizome: An underground stem which generates both roots and stems.
AB: Why should I buy it like this other than ground.
PE: There's some very fine quality ginger that they only dry and then they ship it across the ocean. This is China #1 ginger. It's the top quality of ginger that you can buy, but it can only be sold dry because it can't make the transport over from China to here in its fresh form.
AB: They take the good stuff and they say we're going to dry that up.
PE: Yes. A lot of people don't think about grinding their own ginger but it's a very simple thing to do.
AB: You just use, like you would do a nutmeg grater.
PE: Yes. Just like that.
AB: Hmm. Wow, that is good. That is good.
AB: How long will it keep like that.
PE: It will keep years like this.
AB: If I keep it all sealed up.
PE: Um hmm. And you want to get them in air-tight glass containers. That's really important.
Always store spices
AB: We're talking a mason jar here.
PE: A mason jar will work just fine. But the less air that can get at the spices the better.
AB: So, air is the enemy.
PE: Air is the enemy of spice.
AB: Can you freeze any of these?
Freeze spices for
PE: Yes. You can freeze all your spices.
AB: The essential oils, they don't, they don't mind.
PE: No. But you have a tendency to forget that they're in a little thing in the 'frigerator, in the freezer.
AB: You've seen my freezer before.
PE: Ha, ha.
to roots, bark, berries, buds and seeds.
"Herb" refers to stems and leaves.
|The four whole cloves and six all spice berries may not seem like much. But you've got to remember, like coffee whole, fresh-ground spices are about 10 times stronger than if they'd been grounded and left on a grocery store shelf for 6 months.||
4 Whole Cloves
|So, this goes straight in on top of the rummed fruit which has miraculously relocated into a large pot. Add to that a teaspoon of cinnamon, or cassia if you want to be technical, and a teaspoon of ground ginger. Now again, I can't overemphasize that you want to use the best spices you can find. They're the whole backbone of the cake.||
1 tsp. Cinnamon
|Now also, 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter—that's a stick and a quarter. A cup of unfiltered apple juice—you can use the filtered kind if you want, but the flavor won't quite be as deep. And last but not least, a cup of sugar which isn't much at all.||
10 tsp. unsalted butter
|Now bring this to a boil over medium-high heat. And as soon as it hits a boil, back off on the heat and bring it down just to a simmer so it's just barely bubbling.||
Reduce heat to a simmer
Now besides melting the butter and the sugar, this period's very important for flavor development. You've got all those spices and all those fruits and they really need time to develop and mingle. Besides, at this point all the flavor that this cake will ever have, with the exception of the nuts, is in this pot; so don't underdevelop it.
AB: [talking on the phone] Listen. Here, here it is: we're going to send the Ginsu's to Emeril, right? But on the little 'from' thing on the label we'll say it's from the Iron Chefs. Yeah, it'll be great. He'll ... [notices the camera] ... I have to go. [clears throat]
5 minutes later
Once 5 to 10 minutes has past, get this off the heat and let it cool down for another 10 to 15 minutes. Why the rest? Well, we've got dry ingredients to add into this, most of which is flour. And if flour hits all that hot liquid now, it's just going to gelatinize into a big kind of gooey mass. Now lumps of coal may be okay as Christmas gifts, but lumps of flour are never fashionable.
Cool 10 - 15 min
Now if you don't really want to finish the baking right now, this is a good place to stop. Just let this cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate. It'll keep for, for 2 to 3 days. Just make sure that you bring it back to room temperature before you finish building that batter.
Cake batters come together smoother if the dry ingredients are sifted directly into the wet. So, we're going to sift in one and three quarter cups of flour, one and one half teaspoon of kosher salt, one teaspoon of baking soda and one teaspoon of baking powder.
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
Now, while the salt is
enhancing the flavor of the fruit, the baking soda will be neutralizing the
overall acid of the mixture, which will allow the baking powder to do what it
does best, which is make carbon dioxide gas.
Now believe it or not, how you stir and what you stir with really does make a difference, which is why I like this big honkin', medieval wooden spoon. What this does is it allows you to kind of bring the cake together very, very quickly and that means we'll have a denser, rather than light and airy, cake. We may not be making doorstops here, but we're not making angel food cake, either.
Now, English tradition holds that in order for a fruitcake to bring luck to everybody in the household, then all the family members have to hold onto the spoon while stirring.
Now as soon as the batter starts to come together, it's time to add two eggs, but add them one at a time making sure that they're fully integrated before the next one goes in.
AB: Thank you.
|Now, the last thing to go in is going to be the nuts. You want to add a least a 1/4 cup of toasted, crushed pecans. But, if you're a nut nut like me, you can go as high as a cup and not do any structural damage to the cake whatsoever.||
1/4 cup pecans,
|In the good ole days, at least one third of every fruitcake recipe dealt exclusively with pan preparation. There was the intricate cutting of waxed paper or even brown paper bags then everything got greased. It was disgusting. But, no more. This recipe has been formulated for a single, 10 inch, non-stick loaf pan.||
10" Loaf Pan
|But, you've got plenty of options. Besides various load sizes, you can go with round or even a tube pan. You can make muffins if you want to. But regardless of the cooking vessel, bake at 325 degrees. Now this loaf will take about an hour, but your cooking time will vary depending on the pan.||
Bake at 325°
So, make sure you've got wooden toothpicks for testing. If it comes out clean, it's done. If it's gooey, leave it alone. Now since continuous oven opening is evil, I'm not even going to check on this for the first 50 minutes. Oh, a pan of hot water on the bottom rack of the oven will help prevent the outer crust of the cake from drying and cracking during the long stay in the oven.
A man recently mushed through
the Ididerod [sic, Iditarod],
eating nothing but his mom's fruitcake.
It smalls done. Looks done. [toothpicks it, comes out clean] Yep, it's done. Now while it's hot, I'm going to hit it with a little bit of brandy. You could baste this on if you want to, but I think the spritzer is a lot more efficient. Besides adding a little bit of flavor at this level of the cake, this is also going to keep the top crust from cracking as the cake cools down. Let this cool completely before de-panning.
Spritz with Brandy
A California artist recently
on a sculpture made of 700 fruit cakes
Although your cake is delicious right now, the flavor will actually improve with time, at least for the next couple of weeks. Now as soon as it cools down, lay it to rest in the airtight container of your choice, preferably something with a little bit of breathing room. Now, check on it every two or three days and when it feels like it's drying out, just spritz it again with the brandy.
Thus interred, your
cake's flavor will compound daily just like the interest on all those holiday credit cards
charges you made ... except in a good day.
Now, I like mine for breakfast, toasted with a little bit of mascarpone cheese. It beats the gym shorts off a power bar any day. I'm Alton Brown. This is Good Eats and, uh, ...
AB: ... okay,
everybody. Let's have a big "Happy
ALL: Happy holidays, everybody.
AB: I don't think that was everybody, W.
W: Oh, whatever!
Last Edited on 08/27/2010