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Fruitcake is delicious, and this recipe proves it

By Claire Saffitz, The New York Times

What would the holidays be without jokes about fruitcake — that it’s leaden, dry and hard, better used as a doorstop or dumbbell than served as dessert?

Every December, fruitcake’s loathsomeness is enshrined on greeting cards and in cartoons. Comedian Johnny Carson famously cracked that there was but one fruitcake in existence that’s passed around continuously from person to person. Fruitcake, in short, is an archetype of bad food.

While it’s arguably appropriate to malign mass-produced fruitcakes — the ones studded with preternaturally green and red glacéed cherries, and topped with shellacked pecan halves — doing so isn’t fair to traditional English fruitcake. That recipe develops a spicy, molasses-y flavor and a rich, tender crumb from a lengthy aging process (after the cake is baked, it’s periodically basted or “fed” with high-proof alcohol and kept tightly wrapped for several weeks or even months). If more people could taste this kind of fruitcake, which is light-years away from the dreaded bricks that bear the same name, they would forget all about its negative reputation.

Fruitcake, I believe, is due for a rebirth. To that end, I set out to create a recipe that possesses all of the complexity of flavor, moist texture and staying power of the traditional cake, but skips the time-intensive aging process so it can be enjoyed right away.

A dense amalgamation of dried fruit and nuts held together by a thick, buttery batter, fruitcake was originally a way of preserving fruit and nuts. The cake slowly absorbs the alcohol during the aging process, which prevents spoilage, then it’s covered in jam and marzipan before being hermetically sealed in royal icing. In this state, uncut, it would keep for months and even years.

My version skips all that, and, while the cake won’t last for years, it will keep for well over a week on your countertop. The batter, mixed with a hand mixer, includes almond paste (a nod to the usual marzipan covering), which helps increase the cake’s preservative qualities with its high sugar and fat content. Aside from a generous quantity of soaked dried fruit, the batter contains no added liquid, keeping the proportions of sugar and fat high and fostering an environment in which bacteria is unlikely to thrive. As a bonus, the fruitcake’s flavor actually improves the longer it sits.

For the dried fruit, I call for prunes, apricots, cherries, currants and cranberries, and, in an ersatz aging process, let these macerate overnight in a combination of orange juice and rum so they soften and take in those flavors before they’re folded into the batter. This combination is particular to my tastes (and notably avoids raisins, which I find overwhelmingly sweet), but use any dried fruit you like as long as the pieces are cut roughly the same size.

Candied citrus peel is almost always included in fruitcake, but, because it’s hard to find in the United States, I add freshly grated lemon and orange zest to the batter instead, which brightens up the cake’s interior flavor and dials down the sweetness. Also tempering the sweetness are toasted walnuts, which bring some needed crunch.

Dark rum or brandy are typically used in fruitcake, but you could choose another high-proof, aged spirit, such as whisky. While you’ll get the most complex flavor from a decent-quality spirit that you wouldn’t mind sipping straight, there’s no need to use anything very expensive either. Because this recipe isn’t aged like traditional fruitcake, the spirit’s flavor predominantly serves to enhance the other flavors.

Once unmolded from its Bundt pan, the finished cake is glazed with strained apricot jam, which gives the exterior a high-gloss finish. Then, as a final flourish, it’s topped with a snow-white icing that falls in appealing drips down the sides. Both touches recall the traditional finish and help seal in the moisture contained in the fruit. If you’re making the cake ahead of time and traveling with it — a move I highly encourage, since it keeps so well — wait to top it with the icing until just before serving.

If none of this persuades you to make fruitcake, consider some of the feedback I received during the testing process. When my husband, a tough-but-fair critic, tried the cake for the first time, he told me it tasted like a recipe that an English bakery had been making for 200 years. My mom liked it so much that she asked me for the recipe and made it for a special occasion with her friends — in the middle of summer!

So not only is this fruitcake so good you’d choose to enjoy it during the holidays, you might even make it year-round. Believe it.

Recipe: One-Day Fruitcake

Although this cake requires you to soak dried fruit overnight in a mixture of rum and orange juice, allowing it to become plump and soft and flavorful, before you assemble the batter, it’s exceedingly faster (and every bit as delicious) as a traditional fruitcake that takes weeks to age. For the best flavor, use the highest-quality dried fruit you can find. — Claire Saffitz

Yield: 12 to 14 servings

Total time: 2 1/2 hours plus overnight soak, time to cool and time to set

Ingredients

For the Fruit Mixture:

  • 1 1/4 cups/170 grams dried cherries
  • 1 1/3 cups/170 grams dried apricots, cut into 1-centimeter pieces
  • 1 1/3 cups /170 grams prunes, cut into 1-centimeter pieces
  • 3/4 cup/113 grams dried cranberries
  • 3/4 cup/113 grams dried currants
  • 1/2 cup/113 grams dark rum or brandy
  • 1/2 cup/113 grams fresh orange juice

For the Batter:

  • 8 ounces/226 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
  • 2 cups/270 grams all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
  • 1 1/2 cups/170 grams walnuts or pecans
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal) or 3/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt (such as Morton’s)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • 3/4 cup/165 grams packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 7 ounces/200 grams almond paste
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the Assembly:

  • 1/3 cup/76 grams dark rum or brandy
  • 1/3 cup/107 grams apricot preserves
  • 1 1/2 cups/165 grams powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • Pinch of kosher salt

Preparation

1. Make the fruit mixture: The day before you bake the cake, combine the dried cherries, apricots, prunes, cranberries, currants, rum and orange juice in a medium bowl and fold thoroughly to combine. Cover the bowl tightly and let sit at room temperature until the fruit is soft and has absorbed all (or nearly all) of the liquid, stirring once or twice, 12 to 24 hours.

2. Arrange an oven rack in the center position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously brush the inside of a 12-cup Bundt pan with butter. Dust the inside of the pan with several pinches of flour, then tap the pan on the counter at different angles to coat every buttered surface. Tap out the excess, then set the pan aside.

3. Scatter the walnuts (or pecans) across a sheet tray and transfer to the oven. Toast until the walnuts are golden brown and fragrant, shaking the pan halfway through, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool completely on the baking sheet, then chop the walnuts. Set aside.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, ginger, baking powder, allspice, baking soda and cloves. Set aside.

5. In a large bowl, combine the butter, brown sugar, lemon zest and orange zest. Pinch off small pieces of the almond paste and add to the bowl. Using a hand mixer, beat the mixture on medium-low until combined, then increase the speed to medium-high and continue to beat, scraping down the sides once or twice, until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

6. With the mixer on low, add the eggs one at a time, increasing the speed just to incorporate each egg before decreasing to low and adding the next, until the mixture is very smooth. Beat in the vanilla, then, on low speed, add the flour mixture and mix just until it disappears. Tip in the fruit mixture, along with any unabsorbed liquid, along with the chopped nuts; use a flexible spatula to fold the batter several times, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl, until the fruit is evenly distributed.

7. Scrape the batter into the prepared Bundt pan, distributing it evenly all the way around and taking care not to form large air pockets. Smooth the surface, then bake the cake until the surface is golden brown, risen and cracked, and a cake tester inserted into a crack comes out clean, 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 15 minutes.

8. Use a skewer or toothpick to poke holes all over the surface of the cake. Use a pastry brush to generously soak the cake with about half of the rum. Let the cake absorb the rum for a few minutes, then turn it out onto a wire rack. Poke more holes all over the cake and dab the remaining rum across every surface.

9. Warm the apricot preserves in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring often with a heatproof flexible spatula, just until the preserves are fluid. Pass the preserves through a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl, pressing on the solids with the spatula to extract as much of the liquid as possible (discard the solids, or scrape back into the jam jar). Use the pastry brush to paint the strained jam over the cake, covering every surface. Let the cake sit uncovered until it’s completely cooled and the jam is set (it should be slightly tacky but not wet to the touch).

10. In a medium bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar, milk, lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and whisk slowly to combine, then whisk vigorously until you have a thick, smooth icing. Slowly pour the icing onto the tallest part of the cake all the way around, letting it slowly cascade down the side. Let the cake sit until the icing is completely set, about 1 hour.

Tip:

The cake will keep, covered at room temperature, for 1 week.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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