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.
Makes 3 loaves
A recipe from Suvir Saran's "Masala Farm." Make this fruitcake now for serving or gift giving during the holidays.
1 pound mixed dried and/or candied fruits (like apricots, candied citron, candied lemon peel, candied orange peel, candied or dried cherries, craisins, currants, dates, figs, and raisins)
8 ounces mixed toasted nuts (like almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts)
1 3/4 cup cognac, plus more as needed
1 1/4 pounds (5 sticks) unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons at room temperature
5 2/3 cups flour plus extra for dusting pans
1/4 teaspoon each: ground cinnamon; ground cloves; ground ginger; ground nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 orange, zested and juiced
1 tablespoon dark or black-strap molasses
1 tablespoon orange marmalade
1/4 teaspoon each: almond extract, orange flower water, vanilla
1 1/4 cups light or dark brown sugar
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons superfine sugar
1.Place the dried fruits, nuts, and 1 cup cognac in a bowl or gallon-sized resealable plastic bag. Set aside at room temperature for at least 1 week, or up to several months ahead (continue to top off the amount of cognac so the fruits continue to sweeten in the alcohol).
2.Grease three 9-by-5-inch loaf pans with 1 tablespoon butter each. Add 2 tablespoons flour to each pan and shake to coat the bottom and sides. Set aside.
3.Whisk the flour, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl; set aside. In another large bowl, whisk the eggs with the orange juice and zest, molasses, marmalade, almond extract, orange flower water, vanilla; set aside.
4.Beat the remaining butter with the brown sugar and granulate sugar in a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer) on low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and creamy, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture followed by half of the egg mixture. Repeat, ending with the last 1/3 of the flour mixture, scraping the bowl between additions as necessary. Mix in the cognac-soaked fruit and nuts (leave any excess liquid behind) and then scrape the batter into the prepared pans.
5.Place the pans in a 350-degree oven and bake the cake for 1 hour. Rotate the pans, reduce the heat to 300 degrees; continue to bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean and the center of the cake resists light pressure, about 30 minutes longer. Check occasionally – if the cakes look like they are browning too quickly, loosely tent with aluminum foil. Remove the cakes from the oven; cool completely in the pans.
6.Place three large pieces of muslin (large enough to completely wrap around each cake; you can also use several layers of cheesecloth in place of muslin) in a bowl and pour the remaining 3/4 cup of cognac over it. Run a paring knife around the edges of each pan to loosen the cakes. Turn each cake out onto a plate. Wrap the cognac-soaked muslin around the cakes so all surfaces, edges, and sides are covered. Sprinkle the top of the cakes with superfine sugar and then wrap tightly in plastic wrap followed by a layer of aluminum foil. Let the cake cure in the refrigerator for 1 week (or up to 1 year).
7.Before serving, let the cake sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes before slicing.
8.Every time you remove a slice, re-soak the muslin in 1/4 cup of fresh cognac, sprinkle with another 3 tablespoons of sugar, and re-wrap in fresh sheets of plastic wrap and aluminum foil. If storing more than 1 week, be sure to soak and replace the muslin on a weekly basis.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.