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‘Best ever’ fruitcake makes great giftPublished December 5, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
My dear late mother, Maria Puck, started her Christmas baking at the beginning of December. A wonderful cook, and especially gifted when it came to cookies, cakes and pastries, she loved baking as a way to express not only her creativity but also her love for the people around her. Even after I moved to Los Angeles in my mid-20s and then opened Spago in my early 30s, come the holiday season, my mother would always mail me — or arrive for a holiday visit carrying — a big tin filled with her Christmas cookies and other treats.
So it almost feels like part of my DNA when, at this time of year, I can’t stop thinking about the delicious sweet things I want to bake and enjoy with my friends and family. And that’s why I want to share with you one of my favorite holiday baking recipes.
This is a Christmas-season favorite that’s perfect to prepare early in the month because it not only keeps well but also gets even better as its flavors mature with a little time: fruitcake.
I know some people groan at the very mention of holiday fruitcake. During the next few weeks, you’ll probably hear television comedians making jokes about it. But don’t let that keep you from this recipe, which really is the best fruitcake I’ve tasted, full of dried fruits and nuts bound together by a simple, buttery batter and slowly baked.
One of the secrets to a fruitcake you’ll love is to use your favorite combination of fruits, so feel free to substitute whatever kind you prefer in the combination listed here. The same goes for the nuts.
Before being combined with the batter, the fruity mixture is simmered and steeped in Marsala, a widely available Italian fortified wine. If you don’t like its taste, use another sweet wine you do enjoy. Not only does the wine soften and flavor the fruits, but its alcohol and sugar content will also help preserve the cake for up to three weeks if you wrap it well and store it at cool room temperature.
So try making one of my fruitcakes now. And if you agree with me that it’s the best ever, go on and make more in quantity to give as holiday gifts. Let the fruitcakes cool completely, then wrap each one well in plastic wrap before wrapping again with colorful cellophane or other gift-wrap paper and a bow. For an extra-special gift, place the plastic-wrapped cake inside a nice new loaf pan and top with a copy of the recipe before completing the presentation.
Makes 1 loaf, 8 1/2 by 4 by 3 1/2 inches
1 cup Marsala, Sauternes or other late-harvest wine
1 cup water
1 cup dark seedless raisins
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup shelled walnuts
1/2 cup dried pears
1/2 cup dried figs
1/2 cup shelled pecans
4 ounces unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
Confectioners’ sugar (optional), for serving
In a medium saucepan, combine the Marsala, water, raisins, apricots, walnuts, pears, figs and pecans. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; then reduce the heat and simmer until the dried fruits are tender, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. With some butter, evenly grease an 8-1/2- by 4- by 3-1/2-inch loaf pan. Add a little flour, and turn and shake the pan to dust the butter evenly; then tap out any excess flour. Set aside.
When the dried-fruit mixture is cool enough to handle, drain it in a sieve set over a large bowl. Reserve the liquid. With a sharp knife,
coarsely chop the soaked fruits and nuts and add them to the bowl containing the reserved liquid.
In a medium saucepan, put the 4 ounces butter, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. Melt over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved completely, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a small bowl, sift together the 2 cups flour, baking soda and salt. Gradually stir these dry ingredients into the melted butter mixture; then scrape this batter into the fruits and nuts, and stir with a sturdy spoon or mix with clean hands until thoroughly combined to form a very thick mixture.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan. Tap the pan firmly on the counter to settle the batter in well, and pat down the surface until level.
Bake in the preheated oven until the cake is nicely browned and feels firm to the touch, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes. Carefully invert onto a rack lined with parchment paper, and leave the cake to cool. Wrap airtight and store at cool room temperature until serving time.
To serve, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the loaf crosswise into thin slices. If you like, dust with confectioners’ sugar by holding a small, fine-meshed sieve over the cake, spooning in the sugar and tapping the rim of the sieve.