RETHINKING FRUITCAKE

 

Finally, a fruitcake that even fruitcake haters will enjoy.

 

Story and photo by Katherine Larson

The world is divided into two categories: Fruitcake Lovers, and Fruitcake Haters. There are more of the latter than of the former. I used to be one myself.

Then I tasted the fruitcake that is the subject of this article and became a convert. I tested it out on fellow Haters and they too were converted. And I tested it out on some Fruitcake Lovers and the verdict came back unanimous: “The best I’ve ever eaten!”

So here you are, with my best wishes: a recipe for what I believe to be the best fruitcake ever.

It comes to us courtesy of Lora Loope of Munising. She has made this treasure annually for about forty years, having received the recipe from her mother, Delora Moon. Moon, in turn, received the recipe from Virginia Hemming (1920-2013), who lived and worked with her husband on a farm, complete with orchard, in Old Peninsula North, near Traverse City. The orchard influence on this fruitcake is obvious and delightful.

Indeed, it’s what makes this fruitcake so different. The secret lies in the fruits and the nuts—such a preponderance of fruits and nuts that the cake is not much more than a flavorful binder to hold them together.

The heavy, stodgy, lumpy objects that have become an annual staple of holiday jokes bear no relationship whatsoever to this treat.

A big part of the difference is the fruits and nuts themselves: they are whole. This improves texture, quality, and flavor. Texture because whole dried apricots, for example, are far juicier than the little orange bits that come in a bag, chopped and coated with some chemical (or too much sugar) to keep them from clumping. Quality because purveyors of dried fruit save the best fruit to sell whole, leaving the damaged ones to be chopped up into those aforementioned bags. And flavor because, with whole fruit, you get the fruit and only the fruit, so flavors shine forth uncompromised.

This assumes, of course, that you are buying actual dried fruit, not the dyed glacéed variety. Far be it from me tell you what you should and shouldn’t like—your tastes are your tastes, and please stick to your guns. For me, however, I am professionally obliged to give a recommendation, and here it is: Go for the real stuff.

Cherries offer an example. Compare, on the one hand, a locally-sourced dried tart cherry (appearance: dark wrinkly maroon; ingredients: cherry) with the neon objects available in the supermarket (appearance: neon pinky-red or green; ingredients: … well, more on that in a moment). The former tastes like real fruit. The latter tastes like ultra-sweet chemical.

And with reason. Those perky bright things get that way by being bathed in a solution of calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide, which removes their natural color and flavor, then sitting for as much as a month in a bath of high-fructose corn syrup, infused with artificial flavor, and finally doused in Red Dye # 4 or the green equivalent. The result is disturbingly sweet, bearing no discernible relationship to actual cherries.

Give me the real thing every time.

 

This brings me back to the Hemming-Moon-Loope recipe. It begins with a trip to your trusted source of dried fruits and nuts, perhaps the local bulk food store, for:

One pound shelled Brazil nuts, whole.

One pound pitted dates, whole.

One pound shelled walnut, halves.

One pound raisins.

 

Yes, really, all that! And there’s more:

Three-quarters of a pound dried apricots, whole.

One-quarter of a pound dried cranberries, whole.

One-third of a pound dried tart cherries, whole.

And half a pound dried pineapple. No, not whole; you can’t get them that way anyway. So buy dried pineapple slices and cut each one into chunks of a size to match the rest of the fruit.

 

Dump all these flavorful goodies—nearly six pounds worth—into a large pot with a lid, pour in about two cups of good sherry, and stir it all together. You’ll need a robust spoon or strong fingers, and this will provide you with your upper-body workout for the first day.

Cover the pot and set it aside on the counter. From time to time, as the spirit moves you, give everything another stir; then let it sit some more. Get a good night’s sleep.

The next day, you have another upper-body workout coming, but first it’s good to get your pans ready.

This recipe will fill about five smallish loaf pans, 7.5 inches by 3.5 inches. If you’d rather make smaller fruitcakes, go ahead; that will work fine too. Bigger pans, Loope said, are not generally successful.

Butter each pan generously, paying particular attention to corners. Then line them with parchment paper.

I found a technique that worked well for me, and probably would have worked even better if I had had a friendly kindergartner near to help with the pencil-and-scissor work. Lacking one, I unrolled about a foot of parchment paper out onto the table. I laid a pan on its side along the leading edge, about midway between the top and bottom of the sheet, and outlined the pan’s side in pencil. Without lifting the pan from the paper, I rolled it onto its base and traced that. Then I rolled the pan to its other side and traced that. After rolling it back to its base again, I tipped the pan first on one end and then on the other and traced them.

Finally, I cut out the resulting shape, which resembled a butterfly. Importantly, though, I extended the top and bottom of the butterfly by several inches. This proved to be essential. In a few hours, after the fruitcakes are cooked and cooled, these extensions will provide convenient handles by which to remove the cakes from their pans.

The butterflies fit nicely into the buttered pans, with the butter serving to glue the paper in place while you prepare the batter. If (like me) you find that a few of your butterflies leave the pan’s corners uncovered, an extra snippet of parchment paper fills the gap.

Ready for the workout? We’re almost there! First, we need to make a batter: In a medium bowl, whisk together two cups of flour, half a cup of granulated sugar, one teaspoon of baking powder, and one teaspoon of kosher or sea salt. In a separate bowl, beat together five large eggs, and then fold them into the flour-sugar-etc. mixture.

Look at the result; it’s pretty small. Compare it to the vat of fruits and nuts that has been merrily marinating overnight; it’s pretty large. Doubt will enter your mind: did I make a mistake? Are my quantities off, maybe by as much as an order of magnitude?

No. You’re good. There’s no problem; this is the very essence of the Hemming-Moon-Loope recipe.

The Loope family includes numerous geologists, and daughter Hannah uses a geological term to describe the family recipe: clast-supported cake. Sedimentary rock often has chunks in it. If there’s lots of surrounding material and just a few chunks, geologists call the rock matrix-supported. But if there are lots and lots of chunks, held together by just a bit of surrounding material, geologists call it clast-supported.

Nothing about this cake is rock-like. But fruity, nutty chunks it does have, and in abundance. Clast-supported.

So take heart. And take out your very biggest mixing bowl, because you’ll need it.

Pour about a third of the fruit-nut mixture into the bowl. Pour about a third of the batter on top of that. Pour about half the remaining fruit-nut mixture on top of that. Pour about half the remaining batter on top of that. Pour the rest of the fruit-nut mixture on top of that. Scrape the rest of the remaining batter on top of that.

Take a deep breath. Roll up your sleeves. And, to quote my favorite bit of the Hemming-Moon-Loope recipe card, “Remove rings from fingers.”

Here comes today’s upper-body workout. It will take a fair amount of effort to distribute the batter evenly through the fruits and nuts; at one point, you may wonder if it will ever happen. Then suddenly, voila! You are there. You have achieved the idea fruitcake-batter texture.

Don’t bother washing your hands yet. You’ll need to pack this mixture into your prepared pans, and only hands will do it. It’s helpful if you can get someone, maybe that helpful kindergartner, to hold each pan above the mixing bowl as you start to fill, or you risk getting glop all over the kitchen counter. But you’ll also need to put those pans down on the counter in order to obey another essential instruction from that recipe card: “Pack tightly into pans.”

If it looks like your mixture won’t fit into the five prepared pans, you may not have packed them tightly enough. Press down.

Now you can wash your hands. The oven needs preheating to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s good to put the kettle on to boil too. Some of that hot water will go into a separate pan to be put into the oven to ensure a moist environment; the rest can go into a teapot so you can reward yourself with a well-deserved cup while the cakes cook.

They will need one hour in the oven. Take them out, put the pans on a rack, and let the fruitcakes cool thoroughly in their pans.

When they are cool, those little parchment-paper handles demonstrate their worth. With them, each cake can be neatly and gently lifted out of its pan. The paper peels right off, and the fruitcakes are ready to eat or to pack up.

The ones you pack up can be wrapped tightly in plastic or cellophane wrap. Kate Bryant, a chemist in the Loope family, confirmed that, despite what your parents or grandparents may have done, foil is not a good idea because of the possibility of leaching aluminum. (This is particularly an issue when foils encounter acids, including fruits and wines; we all absorb some aluminum every day from our environment but, especially for the elderly and those with kidney issues, why invite more?)

After the cakes are wrapped air-tight, they can be stored in a cool place. They can also travel through the mail with aplomb. Loope is not sure how long these fruitcakes remain good, but in her house they have done fine for at least a month and a half—after that, they were all eaten up anyway.

One more pointer: when you cut into these tasty treats, a serrated knife should comfortably saw through the various textures without squashing a fruit or balking at a nut. But don’t make the slices too thick; perhaps a quarter to half of an inch or so is perfect.

The mingled fruits and nuts reveal themselves like a mosaic; the deep rich natural flavors unfold; you have achieved the apotheosis of the art.

May I have another slice, please?

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