Winter begins in November/ December. Wind chills. Frosty mornings. Frigid temperatures. Naked plants and trees. Heavy clothes. Dampness and darkness. Large gas bills. These are some of the not so pleasant things.
Mulled wine and warm cider. Soups and breads. Christmas. Baking fruit cakes and Christmas pudding. Christmas tree and nativity decoration. Ornaments and icicle lights. Buche de Noel and candy canes. Hymns and carols. Santa and the fire place. Poinsettias and pine trees. A brand new year and few carried over un-kept resolutions. These are some of the pleasant things.
Personally, I love Christmas. I love cooking and baking that is filled with tradition. Stir up Sunday to bake the flaming Christmas pudding, Buche de Noel/ Yule log for the Christmas eve dinner, Peppermint in candy canes that also serve as a remedy for winter colds, Egg Nog/ Egg milk punch to toast on one’s good health, Gateau des Rois/ King’s cake in honor of the three wise men for Epiphany and lots more.
Few more weeks to Christmas! It’s time to soak the dried fried fruits to bake mystically melting fruit cakes. I’ve been baking fruit cakes since 2011. Not too long though! But I’ve baked hundreds of pounds. This has become the quintessential Christmas favorite of my family and friends. I’ve experimented quite a bit with different types of fruit mix, different alcohol and liqueurs, non-alcoholic substitutes, different versions with jewelled fruits, subtle fruits, bold fruits et al. I must say, it’s labor intensive, time consuming and a pricey project. The process takes muscle as well as makes a big hole in the wallet. I tend to lose few pounds when I bake large quantities of fruit cake. One needs to plan ahead of time – choosing the type of dried fruits and nuts, soaking liquid (alcohol or non-alcoholic), appropriate packaging, long term storage etc. Despite the elbow grease spent, I enjoy the whole process. I love the aroma of warm spices wafting in my home. To bake a fruit cake that is dense yet moist, bursting with deep and rich flavors, pleasantly spicy and without overpowering booze, you need to soak the dried fruits.
So, what’s the hype about soaking dried fruits? What dried fruits do I soak? What alcohol do I use? What if I do not prefer alcohol, is there a substitute? That’s what this post is about. I do not claim that my suggestions are traditional and right, but these are tried and tested over months to know the results. Do try out if you’re convinced. Traditionally dried fruits are soaked three months to six weeks before Christmas. The longer you soak the fruits the better. The cake is baked a week or two before Christmas and fed/basted with alcohol. These two weeks help the fruits mellow and mingle with alcohol, flavors mature and the cake ripens.
What dried fruits do I soak? This depends on the kind of fruit cake do you want to bake. Would you like your fruit cake dark and bold or light and mild. Dark colored fruits give dark fruit cakes, light colored fruits give light fruit cakes. I prefer a mix of both to balance out colors and flavors. Please use the best dried fruits and nuts you can get. Good stuff always gives flavorful results. I use organic, preservative free dried fruits without artificial flavors or sweetness, artificial colors or other additives. Sulfur Dioxide or E220 is the usual suspect that is used as a ‘safe’ preservative in dried fruits to retain freshness and color. Use unsulfured dried fruits as folks allergic to sulfur react to this preservative. Unsulfured dried fruits are superior in quality.
Dark Dried Fruits
1) Vine fruits like Raisins, Currants and Sultanas make a major portion of the soaked fruits. They are all dried grapes with difference in origin, color and type. Raisins are dried white moscatel grapes that’s dark in color. Sultanas are golden and plump. These are also called golden raisins. Currants are smaller than raisins and sultanas made from corinth grapes. Do not mince finely. These fruits give texture to your cakes. Fine minces will weigh down the cake making it dense.
2) Dates (not fresh ones) – Choose naturally sweetened, moist, pitted dates. Here in the USA, I use either Medjool dates or Deglet noor dates. I quarter the dates. Keep the size chunky. When mixed with the cake batter, these break down and disintegrate sooner than other fruits.
3) Plums (dried)/ Prunes – These mildly sweet dried plums pack the cake with exceptional moistness and juiciness that lingers in your mouth even after you scoffed off that slice of fruit cake. I use pitted prunes. Just quarter the prunes for soaking.
4) Figs – Dried figs give crunch to the cakes. These dried fruits add honeyish flavor and mild sweetness to the fruit cake. I nip the stem and chop into small pieces.
Jewelled dried fruits – These dried fruits give that festive appearance to fruit cakes with their vibrant colors.
1) Glacé cherries – These are candied red cherries. Fresh cherries are steeped in thick sugar syrup and dried to preserved. While steeped in syrup, color is added to make it red or green or any color of choice. I detest the neon colored ones and won’t use it in my fruit cakes. These are chewy in texture. Chop this roughly.
* I came to know from a reliable source that whatever dried fruit is sold as cherries in India is made from a local fruit called Karonda (Hindi) / Kalakai (Tamil). These local fruits are steeped in sugar or saccharine, artificially colored and passed off as glazed cherries. Please check the source before you buy.
2) Dried Cranberries – These add a sweet-tart flavor to the fruit cakes.
Golden dried fruits – These fruits result in light and subtle fruit cakes.
1) Dried Apricots – These orange colored plump, moist, chewy dried fruit has a musky flavor with faint tartness.
2) Dried Tropical Mix – You may want to use a mix of dried pineapple, dried papayas, dried mangoes and dried bananas. I HATE multi colored tutti-fruitti, so I never use those.
* Tutti- Fruiti sold in the Indian grocery stores is candied papaya sweetened with saccharine.
How much dried fruits do I need? Use a combination of the above mentioned dried fruits sticking to the quantity your recipe calls for.
Candied Citrus Peel – I use a mix of orange, grape fruit, lemon, citron and lime. The method to make candied peel is the same for most citrus fruit. I’ve used this recipe countless times with success.
Candied Ginger – Ginger adds spicy heat and wonderful fragrance to fruit cakes. I follow this recipe. It’s cost effective and guarantees quality.
Spices used are cloves, cinnamon, all spice berries, nutmeg, mace, star anise. Cake seeds are used in some recipes. I use caraway seeds or shah jeera.
- 1 Tbs ground allspice (looks like black peppers)
- 1 Tbs ground cinnamon
- 1 Tbs ground nutmeg
- 2 tsp ground mace
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 2 Star Anise
Blend these spices and store in the refrigerator. Do not make large quantities as the flavors dissipate and cinnamon takes over the flavor profile.
Black Treacle – This dark, thick liquid is obtained from the residual molasses which is drained from the molds used in the sugar refining process. Traditionally treacle is used in fruit cakes to give that robust deep flavor, moist texture and rich color. I substitute with unsulfured molasses. If you can’t find treacle or molasses (Gur ras in Hindi), make a syrup with palm jaggery. This gives a similar flavor and viscous consistency. You can also use honey or maple syrup. But the flavor is mild.
Molasses/ Treacle substitute
1 cup grated palm jaggery. Khejur gur in Hindi/ Karupatti vellam in Tamil
3/4 cup water
Method – Bring water to a boil. Add grated jaggery. Keep stirring till the syrup reaches the thread consistency (215 F – 220 F). As the water evaporates, the density increases and the syrup thickens. Strain syrup using a tea strainer to remove debris. When cooled the consistency should be like honey. Store in a bottle. Keep refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before using.
Dark Caramel Syrup (also called Black Jack) – Indian plum cake recipes call for black jack which is used for it’s dark color and slightly bitter taste. If you’re accustomed to making caramel syrups, go ahead and boil the sugar syrup till it reaches 345 F – 350 F. The caramel becomes very dark and intense. If you boil further, then bin the syrup and start over. Real black jack (400 F sugar syrup) is way too bitter.
Nut mix – I use a mix of walnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. I do not soak the nuts in alcohol or fruit juice. Gently roast the nuts to bring out the oils, cool and chop roughly, then mix with cake batter just before filling cake pans and bunging into the oven. I do not use cashews as it has a soft texture and lacks crunch.
Alcohol soak – The soaker is absolutely your choice. Alcohol dictates the fruit cake flavors as well as act as a preservative. Good quality liquor/ liqueur result in good flavor. Usually brandy, dark rum or red wine is used. Brandy and red wine have similar undertones as they are made from grapes. Rum is made from sugar cane molasses and has a distinct aroma. You can also use a mix of these alcohols to make your own concoction. A balanced mix of liquors and liqueurs dictate the flavor profile of the fruit cake. I’ve also observed that, the basting liquor or liqueur is what pronounces the fruit cake flavors rather than the soaker. Use enough alcohol to cover the dried fruits. Keep shuffling the mix every other day for two weeks. Later, weekly shuffling works just fine. Excess alcohol must be drained and used for feeding the fruit cake. The whole ordeal is done at room temperature. Refrigeration not required.
After a good soak, dried fruits will plump up absorbing the liquid. Remember the process called osmosis we studied in school. Same thing happens here. Dried fruits soaked in liquor/ liqueurs do not require refrigeration. Alcohol acts as a preservative as well as a flavor enhancer. Use a glass jar for storing the soaked dried fruits. I use large cookie jars. If you need to make large quantities (about 80 – 100 lb dried fruits), buy large food grade plastic containers and use for storage. Do not use metal containers as alcohol reacts with metal. Strictly no aluminium containers. Stainless steel seems alright for a few days or weeks, but not recommended for long term storage. If the steel is not good quality, the interiors of the utensil may rust and you may not even notice it because it’s opaque. Eventually, the flavor of the fruit mix is affected, worse may be wasted.
Non – alcoholic substitute – Hot black tea can be used to soak the dried fruits. Make a decoction using two Assam or Darjeeling tea bags in a cup of hot water and use as a soaker. This deepens the flavors of the dried fruits. Grape juice is a good alternative to brandy. Orange and apple juice are good for light colored fruit cakes. If you choose to make an alcohol free fruit cake, soak the dried fruits overnight in a glass bowl. Let the dried fruits plump up. If you intend to use the dried fruit mix the next morning, drain and use. If not, store it in a bottle and refrigerate till needed. The drained juice or tea can be used for basting.
Rum extract and Rum essence – Rum extract is concentrated rum flavor which is deep and complex. This contains low or no alcohol content. Rum essence is the imitation version made with artificial ingredients. If you avoid alcohol due to allergies or religious reasons, check the flavoring source before use. Depending on the brand and make, these flavoring agents may or may not contain alcohol. If you use alcohol for baking the fruit cakes, you do not need any flavoring agents. If not, a dash of flavor helps amp up the flavor profile of your fruit cake.
Tips and trouble shooting
– Fruit cakes are dense bakes. It crumbles when sliced due to chock-full dried fruits, nuts and low flour content. Hence, they are not suitable for torting and carving. Refrigerated fruit cakes slice better.
– Fruit cakes do not need a frosting or icing to be served. It’s good on it’s own.
– Soaked dried fruits must be plump with soaker. When baked, the soaker oozes out keeping the fruit cake moist and flavorful. Use good amount of alcohol or substitute to cover the dried fruits while soaking.
– Traditionally, fruit cakes are covered with marzipan and royal icing.
– Low oven temperature (250 degree F – 275 degree F) and longer baking times (2-3 hrs) bakes a moist fruit cake. I told ye it’s an expensive project!
– Though fruit cakes do not rise high, don’t fill the pan beyond 2/3 full. You do not want an overflowing cake with a dry and crusty top.
– Dredge soaked fruits and nuts in flour, dust excess and mix with the cake batter. This ensures the fruits and nuts do not settle at the bottom.
– Line outside of the cake pan with several layers of brown paper for added insulation. This helps in not drying out the cake.
– Tent the top with a foil if you notice excess browning due to long baking time. Wrap fruit cake with cling film or saran wrap once cooled. The crusty top softens the next day.
– Fill a tray with water (1/4 inch level) and keep it below or next to the cake pan. The vapor keeps the oven moist and eventually bakes a very moist cake.
– Cool cake completely in the cake pan before de-molding.
– If you intend on saving the fruit cake for later use, age the cake with alcohol for 3-4 weeks, wrap in several layers of cheese cloth and cling film, then freeze. Freezing retards maturing of flavors.
– Do not bake or store fruit cakes in aluminum foil loaf pans. While parchment lined good quality aluminum baking pans can be used. Alcohol used for basting reacts with the aluminum foil and pits it. It also gives an off flavor to the fruit cake. Personally tested!
– Use a wooden spoon to mix and stir the soaking dried fruits. Metal reacts with alcohol.
– Store fruit cakes in a dark and cool place. Humidity is a killer. If stored well, fruit cakes last years. Personally tested! I had a sample for a year. Fed it fortnightly, re – wrapped it and finally sampled it. That was the most flavorful fruit cake I’d ever tasted.
Fruit cakes are a labor of love. Take care of those precious babies and they will taste divine. Here’s the first boiled fruit cake recipe I tried in 2011.