Wednesday, 23 December 2015
My grandmother's fruit cake
December and January are - in Australia anyway - associated with one cake. Though it's often called Christmas cake, fruit cake straddles the summer. For me it's evocative of catching up with rellies in between present shopping and menu planning in the lead up to the 25th, and of morning teas in rest areas on road trips in the new year. It goes as well with bone china, as it does with tea from a thermos. My grandmother Irene, who I've talked about here before, many times, was famous for her fruitcake. When she died, my mother took up the tradition, and now, this year, it falls to me. In mum's cooking files, I found my grandmother's original handwritten recipe. Curiously, it listed only the ingredients, and no mention of method, but after a little internet research I was able to take a stab at how they combined. The key point of difference in any fruit cake, it seems, is whether or not the fruit is boiled. From what I gather, the boiling is a shortcut to allow you to make the cake the day you want to eat it, speeding the softening of the dried fruit. My grandmother did not believe in short cuts, so I elected to take the long road and soak the fruit the night before. Really, this took no time at all and required nothing more than a bit of measuring out. The next day, it was just a matter of combining the plumped, boozy fruit with the remaining ingredients to form a rich, robust batter, pouring it into a tin and baking it for three hours in a slow (low) oven. Though I didn't have either of my senior fruit cake advisers on hand, I did have the help of my dad's 16 year old neighbour William, a keen baker with 2nd and 3rd place wins in the fruit cake division of the Brookfield Show behind him. On the lookout for a prospective 1st place recipe, he offered his services and I gratefully accepted. I'm pleased to report it was a win for both of us, the cake pulled from the oven as good as I remembered my grandmother's and my mother's: deep brown, moist, and fragrant with citrus, dried fruit and the memory of those who'd made it before me.
My grandmother's fruit cake
Recipe adapted from my grandmother Irene's original handwritten recipe
Though this is as easy as combining all ingredients, you'll need to start this the night before to allow the fruit to plump up in the alcohol.
1/2 lb (225g) butter, softened
1/2 lb (225g) brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
grated zest and juice of one orange
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 cup rum
1 tablespoon treacle, honey or syrup
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1 cup self-raising flour (or one cup plain with 2 teaspoons baking powder)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons mixed spice
1 tablespoon Parisian essence
1 lb (450g) raisins
1 lb (450g) sultanas
1/2 lb (450g) currants
4 oz (115g) pitted dates
4 oz (115g) mixed peel (you could also use glacé cherries)
2 or 3 oz (55 or 85g) blanched almonds, roughly chopped
The night before you make the cake, weigh out all your dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, currants, pitted dates and mixed peel) and pour over rum. Stir so that the alcohol coats all the fruit, then cover and leave sit at room temperature overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 deg F / 160 deg C and arrange oven rack in middle position.
Grease a large square cake tin and line base and sides with baking paper.
In a large mixing bowl, combine butter, brown sugar, salt, eggs, citrus zest, orange juice, treacle, flour, cinnamon, mixed spice, Parisian essence and almonds, til you have a nice smooth batter free of lumps. Stir in soaked fruit and mix til evenly distributed.
Pour mixture into tin and pop into the preheated oven. Bake for three hours but after each hour, you'll need to turn the heat down to a lower temperature:
1st hour: 325 deg F / 160 deg C
2nd hour: 300 deg F / 150 deg C
3rd hour: 250 deg F / 120 deg C
If you feel the cake is browning too quickly in that last hour of cooking time - keep your nose tuned and eyes peeled - cover the top with a bit of aluminium foil.