Food, Farming and Fruitcake


For most people, a fruitcake is an over-sweetened store-bought concoction, dry and dreadful, something to be thrown away as soon as the gift-giving friend has stepped off the front porch or quickly recycled to an unsuspecting colleague.

But this is not how I feel about my mother's fruitcake, a dense mixture of dried fruits and nuts, spiced and infused with brandy.

The taste invokes memories of snowy holidays in a tiny mountain cabin, massive icicles hanging from the eves, the warmth of a fire on cold feet, and a full stomach.

My mother is the cook in our family (although my father has offered sweet inspiration in the form of Dobosh torte, Linzer torte, and croissant) from his European heritage. Our family celebrates both the Jewish and Christian traditions, which makes for pretty good holiday eating: Christollen, Challah, latkes, Buche de Noel, and, of course, fruitcake.

My mother usually begins the fruitcake the weekend after Thanksgiving. It takes some planning to assemble the 6 kinds of dried fruit, the 3 kinds of nuts and the parchment needed for the pans. You also need a small mountain of molasses, butter, and eggs.

This year I decide to make the fruitcake myself because we have an abundance of figs and apricots harvested from our trees last summer that we dried in the sun and stored. We also have certified organic walnuts from our friend and neighbor, Paul, and some locally grown almonds.

I first prepare the almonds by blanching them in hot water. I used to love to do this as a child and figured it would be fast. But when you have 3 cups to blanch, you better have a technique. Mine was to aim the almonds, pointed end forward, directly into the Cuisinart and squeeze. Most of the time, the white almond hits its target. I add in the other nuts, turned on the machine and in a few seconds the chopping is done.

The fruit, though, is another matter. When your Cuisinart is 20-years old, the fruit gets stuck in the not-too-sharp blade and the operation halts. I solve this problem but chopping in very small batches. Still this takes about 30 minutes. I know now what I want for Christmas. The chopped fruit is mixed with Brandy and left to imbibe.

I break up the baking day by attending to my other chores. The weather forecast predicts an end to our clear sunny days. We may even have snow for the first time in 9 years. For this reason (and because we got rid of our dryer long ago), all the laundry must be done and hung out to dry before the rain comes.

We live on a small farm in the California Central Valley and this time of year there is a lot of fruit to be harvested and then either eaten, given away or dried. This year we are drying persimmons, and these must be brought in, too. The children have picked mandarins and now want to sell them to passers-by. So I help them make a sign and watch them as they make sales. They make $4 in 30 minutes. Not a bad business for a couple 8 year-olds.

I return to the kitchen where I cream the butter, sugar, molasses and eggs. I add in the salt and flour and then mix together the entire concoction- brandied fruit, nuts and the butter/molasses mixture. Dark and sweet with many hues, the batter is delicious. My daughter's friend thinks so too. I bake the cakes for 1.5 hours. When removed from the oven, the small cakes are dark and rough textured.

Friends stop by and nibble. C says "I don't usually like fruitcake, but this one...".

Trish's fruitcake

Prepare 15 small (3x6 inch) bread pans by lining with parchment paper.

Chop and mix:

3 cups (1 lb) currants
2 cups (1 lb) pitted dates
3 cups (1 lb) dried figs
5 cups raisins
1 c dried cranberries
3 cups (1 lb dried apricots)
3 cups (1 lb) dried peaches or apples

Add and mix:

4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cloves

Add 1 c. Brandy
soak 3 hours or overnight at root temperature

Chop and add:

3 c blanched almonds
2 c pecans
1 c walnuts

Add in:
1/2 c blackberry jam

In a separate bowl cream together:
1 lb unsweetened butter
2 cups (1 lb brown sugar)
1 cup molasses

When creamy, add
12 eggs

When thoroughly mixed, stir in:
4 cups unbleached white pastry flour
2 tsp salt

Pour the butter/sugar mixture over the fruit.nut mixture. Stir well.
Fill prepared pans almost full. Trim edges of parchment paper with scissors so that they don't burn while baking.

Bake 275 degrees F for 1- 1.5 hours.

Remove from oven and parchment. Cool on racks. Sprinkle with brandy while still warm.

When cool, wrap in old, clean sheets and store in a cooler in a cool room or garage for 2-4 weeks. Every 1-2 days, unwrap and sprinkle with more brandy.

When ready to serve, frost with freshly-made hard sauce. Decorate with three walnut halves and maybe a dried cranberry or two.

Hard sauce:
Cream 1 cube (1/2 c) sweet butter with 2 cups powdered sugar. When creamy, add in 2-3 TB brandy.


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I never thought of adding blackberry jam! We get tons of blackberries in our potager (and figs also). Thanks so much for your mom's recipe. In France, blanched almonds are easy to come by and are very affordable. And yes, it is more interesting to do other stuff when baking a long involved recipe.

By Michelle B (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

It is a wonderful story.

Thank you for sharing it and it sounds like a pleasant tradition of the season for you and your family.

I have tried many different fruitcakes made to such high standards including one prepared by Trappist Monks.

I have also sampled an enormous variety of Christmas puddings.

The reason I have been exposed to such a surfeit of these treats is because despite their variety and the devotion to their complex construction I have found them all to be, as you described previously, dreadful.

I have the same opinion of lutefisk and pidan and as many producers of these preserved delicacies determined to prove that I merely got a "bad one" or theirs is the only good one etc..

I know what they are trying to do and I love them for it. They want to transmit their happy memories to me, forgetting that their plum pudding or century egg is only an effective trigger of their own recollection.

So again, thank you for a story that succeeds in the intent of sharing what fruitcake means to you without actually subjecting me to fruitcake.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

Prometheus - dont give up on the potential for vile foods to come good!

I was equally under the impression that most if not all fruitcakes were stody lumps of leftovers to be avoided at best and regifted at worst, until last christmas my wife spent the better part of a day making a fruit cake for my father in law.... suffice to say that after being the guinea pig I made every effort to be around when it was finally gifted and eaten - I get the feeling it is predominatly the quality of the fruit, and the quantity/quality of the alcoholic marinade that differentiates between the good and the bad (if I recall the fruitcake last year cost an obscene amount, even if you dont include the full price of the 3 different spirits that went into making it (I prefer to include the full price as not one of those bottles has reduced in volume since the making of the cake) - mostly on good quality dried fruit)

I live in LatinAmerica and never understood why you in US treated the fruitcake with such contempt. Over here is called Black Cake (Torta negra). I remember my aunts and grandmother keeping the fruits in a large glass container for months,in a mixture of fruits, nuts and several licours. I don't know the recipe but the final product, that was prepared a few weeks before Christmas, was delicious. You had to control yourself to avoid overeating the cake and keep space for other delicious Christmas dishes.
It tastes better if you eat it after a few days of being prepared.

#5 cambrico

"Over here is called Black Cake (Torta negra)."

I know it in both its pale ale original version Teisen Ddu Nadolig and as the rum soaked Latin variant Patagonian Welsh Black Cake both as a stand alone and as a bottom layer on some traditional wedding cakes.

Once again thanks to you and Ewan R for trying but referring back to my first post in the thread, I think we are in a loop of Res ipsa loquitur in that you are successfully transmitting happy memories of preserved food while thankfully preserving me from the foods themselves.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

My earliest memories, and sadly, just about my only memories of my maternal grandmother involve sitting at her kitchen table where just such an exercise as you describe unfolded. In post-war Britian, a lot of stuff had to be carefully hoarded to bring the recipe together.... the whole thing was wonderful, and a good fruitcake is a centrepiece of my Christmas even now, as my sister has taken up the challenge.
Storebought is no comparison.

I am convinces some portions of my brain take naps from time to time. This morning I woke up thinking "Fruitcake Weather" and I finally remembered what it was from. Marvelous story.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 14 Dec 2009 #permalink

"fruitcake weather"
thanks for the lovely video. My 10 year old son doesnt have an old buggy but he did help in gathering the apricots last summer and we did have a fire in our fireplace when making the fruitcake.

I am so very glad we did not have to shell all the nuts by ourselves. Their is a farmer nearby who does the cracking for the entire community.

I was equally under the impression that most if not all fruitcakes were stody lumps of leftovers to be avoided at best and regifted at worst, until last christmas my wife spent the better part of a day making a fruit cake for my father in law