It's December and the smells of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg start drifting through me by habit. I think it's what coils around my DNA actually. Maybe it's a seasonal chromosome, maybe red and green, flaring once a year like a beacon to my nose - triggering a longing for mincemeat tarts, Christmas pudding, and yes...believe it...fruitcake.No one I know likes fruitcake. I feel alone.
Laurie Colwin in Home Cooking quoted Abe Lincoln: "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."
And that sums up the very clearly delineated world of fruitcake.
But that world has its own cracks. And to the left here is where I think fruitcake world cleaves itself. Where it goes terribly, terribly wrong. This is the fruitcake that lives up to the Johnny Carson joke: that there really is only one fruitcake in the world and it's just regifted year after year.
Candied peel. Piled and glistening and drowning the cake underneath. Wrong.
I'm not alone, as it turns out. Since I first posted this, fruitcakers have crept forward to declare their fruitcakeness. It started when a friend came up to me last week to talk about Christmas pudding - she talked wistfully about how her mother-in-law made it when she was well and able. She hasn't had it in years. She also loves mincemeat tarts - which means she loves that combo of deep spice and sweetness, that is distinctly British. And fruitcake. A kindred spirit.
Last year I brought you a recipe for homemade mincemeat. As I look forward to my first tarts of the season - and to Mum's Christmas puddings, which she made and doused in brandy long ago...(hmmm for which I have no recipe yet, and I'm not sure if she's ever written down after decades of puds and brandy) - I bring you this time, for those who will admit to needing one, a fantastic recipe for...The Fruitcake.
What I love about this family recipe below is that it's full of what I do love: raisins, sultanas, currants...and while it calls for some candied peel, we replace it with dried cranberries, or dried cherries.
This recipe comes from my aunt and an ancient magazine recipe from deep inside her recipe box. Years ago I transcribed it to paper. Mum tried to read it to me last night on the phone. The paper is frayed and broken and smudged and stained.
It isn't just for Christmas at Auntie Mag's, fruitcake, complete with royal icing, is everyone's birthday cake - and Mum made me one for my wedding, also dressed in royal icing and flowers - which I'm happy to say I ate all myself since Steve would prefer to have nothing to do with the fruitcake chromosome. So birthdays, weddings, family holidays - a celebration of life -
Serve yourself a chunk with a big mug of tea - turn your back to the naysayers and be smug about it. And it'll last six months in a proper cake tin wrapped up, so you can indulge.
Our family fruitcake
14 oz (400g) sultanas
9 oz (250g) raisins
9 oz (250g) currants
4 oz (100g) stoned prunes, chopped
5 oz (125g) mixed chopped peel (substitute dried cherries or cranberries if you prefer, and I do)
4 oz (115 ml) sherry
1 orange, both rind and juice
1 lemon, both rind and juice
5 oz (125g) glaced cherries, quartered
12 oz (350g) softened butter
10 oz (275g) dark, soft brown sugar
14 oz (400g) plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice - distinctly British - it's a combo of 1 small cinnamon stick and 1 tablespoon each cloves, mace, ground nutmeg, coriander seeds, and allspice berries
1/4 tsp nutmeg, grated
6 medium eggs
2 tbsp apricot jam
2 tbsp black treacle, aka molasses
The next day, add cherries and nuts to mixture.
The first time I tried this in a standing mixture, I thought I'd gone to heaven. You can do it without the machine, and you'll earn enough muscles to grant yourself an extra slice of cake when it's done.
Preheat your oven to 275 degrees F.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
Sieve all dry ingredients together and add 4 tbsp to creamed mixture. Beat eggs. Gradually add to creamed mixture, beating well, add a little from measured quantity if it curdles.
Beat in jam and treacle, fold in remaining dry ingredients and mix well. Mix in fruits with wooden spoon or spatula (or standing mixer, with a strong motor).
Turn cake mixture into greased and lined tin and smooth top.
Bake for 4 ½ hours – in the lower half of the oven.
Test cake by inserting skewer.
Remove cake from oven, cool in the tin. Leaving 24 hours.
To store: remove from tin, wrap in greaseproof paper and then foil. Keep in a round cake tin.
And enjoy with much glee as people make jokes about how criminal it is to propagate the one fruitcake in the world, yadda, yadda, yadda.