The Daley Question

That old fruitcake magic

The moment, and memories, affect how we rate food

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Fruitcake has a bit of a bad reputation. If you really want to make an edible version of this holiday treat, try experimenting with your recipes. (Chicago Tribune file photo)

Q: When I got married, for our first Christmas, I decided to bake a fruitcake for the first time. The thinking was that if it was made from scratch it would be much better than those horrors sold in the stores. The Betty Crocker yellow fruitcake recipe was used substituting butter for the shortening.

To my amazement, it was delicious ... . We had a slice at breakfast each Saturday and Sunday. Each of the slices were cut progressively thinner and thinner to prolong our enjoyment of the cake.

My arrogance led me to make another the following Christmas. It was awful!

Thinking that, as a first-time baker, I must have made a mistake in the recipe. My wife, a Cordon Bleu trained cook, also thought it probable. Various versions were made over several Christmases:

1. The butter was doubled.

2. The sugar was doubled.

3. The eggs were doubled.

All were mediocre, and I gave up on Christmas fruitcake.

My opinion is that some sort of "Perfect Storm" of ingredients and mistakes made this happen but I have never been able to duplicate my initial success. Any thoughts?

—Anton Ondrus Jr., Highland Park, Ill.

A: Yes. I think this is one of those magical first-Christmas-together moments that, clearly, are treasured for years. And that's an important thing to remember when it comes to food. It's often not just the particular food itself, but the timing, the mood, the presentation, the memories, even the state of your body and mind.

That's why a dish that seems so wonderful once can seem, well, rather ho-hum on the next round.

One can also grow up and past a particular food with time, too. Our senses tend to become duller — tastes and smells are not as vivid. Our palates mature, so the simple sweetness of a nursery dish pales before more savory adult pleasures.

I'd encourage you to make fruitcake again — and I'm giving you an interesting recipe now so that you will have plenty of time to make some fruitcake and cure it for the holidays.

This recipe for cognac-cured fruitcake comes from Suvir Saran, the New York restaurateur and author, and is found in his book, "Masala Farm: Stories and Recipes from an Uncommon Life in the Country." Interestingly, it involves a food memory and just might revive your passion for fruitcake.

"One of my favorite childhood memories is actually a smell — the sweet, alcohol-laced fragrance of this incredible fruitcake made by Shashi Auntie, who lived next door to my family in New Delhi," Saran wrote. "Every November, she'd begin soaking dried and candied fruits in rum or brandy to make stacks and stacks of fruitcakes that would fill her house as the weeks progressed, all to be given away to friends and neighbors as Christmas gifts."

After he moved to New York City, Saran found himself hankering for those fruitcakes. He got the recipe and began baking away to treat family and friends here in the United States. This recipe makes 3 loaves.

I'm forwarding the recipe to you now because Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner and you'll want to get started on this project early.

Cognac-cured fruitcake

Makes 3 loaves

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