No neon fruit, just lots of moist, rummy goodness
So, I called my sister yesterday, to tell her I'd just put the better part of ten cups of fruit and nuts to soak in a healthy dose of rum and port for Christmas cake - Christmas cake that I'd be bringing home for the holidays. Her response? 'Great! Uncle Martin and uncle Thomas will love that!' Now, as much as I'm thrilled at the idea of my uncles enjoying the heck out of some homemade, fruit-studded and rum-soaked cake, I was hoping for something more along the lines of 'oooh, I can't wait to try that!' All I heard was 'I'll pass on the fruitcake, thanks.'
Though she'll be getting a sideways glance or two from me this Christmas, if she doesn't at least try it, I'm not entirely surprised by her response. Fruitcake, for most, is a tradition best left in the past. It is a sweet 'treat' that is, more often than not, surreptitiously folded into a napkin under the table, and deftly maneuvered into the trash, amid concealing napkins and the wrappers of sweets more unanimously enjoyed.
It's fair to say that fruitcake has a bad rap.
Whenever I think of it, I think of being a child and peeking into the larder in my grandparents cellar, which bore a handwritten note with the words 'no goings in here' scrawled across it. (The 's' on the end of 'goings' has always baffled me, but is somehow so like my family, that I'd be even more bothered by it not being there.) As a prominent doctor in Copenhagen, my grandfather was a receiver of countless gifts, most of which were either in the form of booze or edible, and the walls of the larder were always lined with bottles of wine and port, boxes of cookies and chocolates, and come the end of the year, an inevitable fruitcake.
Now, this was the kind of fruitcake you could see, even if the lights were off. The candied cherries, pineapple and green mystery fruit (still, to this day, I have no idea what that is, and it's probably better left to my imagination, at this point), glowed neon and bright, and practically lit the cake from within.
Some years, that cake would sit on a shelf through the entire holiday season, without so much as a modicum of attention being paid to it, and some years, someone (usually my grandmother), would take pity on the poor thing and bring it up from the depths for a taste.
Though well intentioned, the cake never satisfied. Dense, heavy, unnaturally fruity and hot with old liquor, this relic of yuletide tradition would be bitten into by a few brave souls, before promptly finding its way back onto the shelf from whence it came.
So, when my sister says she'll pass on the fruitcake, I remember that she, too, stuck her head into that dark room in the cellar all those years ago, and witnessed the glow of a cake not meant for human consumption, and that she, too, hoped we'd never be made to eat it again.
But, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Christmas cake, when made the right way, can be absolutely delicious! When you forsake the candied fruits and dry crumb, and replace them with plump, richly sweet and dried cherries, prunes, currants and raisins that have soaked, along with almonds and ginger, for a full week in dark, caramel-y rum and ruby red port, and then bake them into spiced and molasses-y cake that ages for three weeks or more, it can only be a good thing.
And when said cake disappears into the darkness of a wine-lined shelf, the moment the lights by the cellar door are turned off, you know this ain't your grandma's fruitcake.
After a lot of researching and reading, this Caribbean style 'black cake' is a new favorite. I adapted it from a recipe I found on Chowhound, when digging around, and I think you'll love it.
Makes two full-sized loaves plus a couple of mini loaves
(Note - the fruit in this cake soaks for a full week before you begin the baking process.)
For the fruit:
For the cake:
Combine all the fruit, nuts, ginger and peel in a bowl, add the rum and port, give it a good mix, and then seal it tightly. Place the bowl in a cool dark place for a full week.
A week later...
Heat your oven to 300*F and grease two 9x5-inch loaf pans, thoroughly.
In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and whisk together. Set the bowl aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or if you're working on serious bicep strength, by all means, use a regular whisk and extreme patience) cream the butter and sugar until pale in color and fluffy (about 3 minutes) and then add the eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated. Finally, add the vanilla.
With the speed on low, add in the flour mixture, the soaked fruit and all its rummy, porty goodness, and the burnt sugar syrup, and mix until just combined.
Fill both loaf pans until 3/4 of-the-way full. (The remainder can be used to make mini loaves to give away!) and bake the cakes for 2 hours. The tester should come out clean, but know that the cake will be very moist. Check it at 2 hours, if you feel like you need more cook time, add 10 more and see. Altitude, cake tins and a number of other factors can affect cook time on this one.
Let the cakes rest for 30 minutes in the pan, then turn them out to cool completely. Brush with a couple of extra tablespoons of rum.
This cake can be eaten right away, but if you really want to treat yourself, let it age. We've got just about four weeks left until Christmas, so take that time and get some age on your cake.
Wrap it in cheesecloth and store it in an airtight container or cake tin - not in plastic wrap! Every few days, you can brush a little more rum over it - if you're into that sort of thing!
It's the sort of cake your uncles will love, and your sister will be requesting next year!
*Burnt sugar syrup is also known as 'browning' and can be found in specialty stores. If you really can't find it, or order it online in the week while your fruit is soaking, substitute blackstrap molasses, though the flavor won't be quite the same.