I confess that I have never made this cake… we always used to count on my mother to send us some. Many thanks to Mum for allowing me to post my grandmother’s recipe. […] Since Christmas 2011, my sister has taken over making the cake.
– me, recipes from OUR kitchen: Dark Fruit Cake, 2013
My sister, P, is a great cook; she is the kind of cook who is intuitive and likes to make alterations to improve the final product. Alterations like replacing loathesome maraschino cherries with dried cherries, or entirely omitting luridly coloured candied peel, or using cashews in place of almonds, or….
Then there is the issue of candied peel. P doesn’t really like it. One year, to shut us candied peel lovers up, she added uncandied peel. Oh my. Perhaps not the best idea; the peel was cut in rather large pieces and became very hard as the cake aged. It wasn’t hard enough to break any teeth but my sister’s ploy was successful. That year, we begged her not to add peel again!
But in spite of the issue of the peel, since P took over the Christmas Cake making for our family, the cake just gets better and better. Dare I say that it might even be better than Mum’s now?
Last year’s was particularly good because, after a considerable amount of wheedling and whining about P refusing to add the candied peel, she finally agreed to candy her own peel and returned the candied peel to the cake at last. Great move!!
But allow my sister to tell the story:
Cake Baking Day
11 November, 2020 It’s Christmas Cake Baking Day and my house smells amazing! It occurs to me that this is my tenth time to bake dark fruit cake for Christmas. On this day, my thoughts are filled with memories of Mum making this cake with her friend, Hildegarde, every year as I was growing up. Her house smelled amazing on that day too!
I started baking the cake in 2011 when Mum moved to an Assisted Living space in another city after Dad died. I took custody of the square baking pans saying I would take over making the Christmas cake. Truth be told, I only said I’d make the Christmas cake because I wanted the square pans. Yes, I was completely selfish!
That first year, I carefully followed the recipe to make one 10×10 inch cake. I divided it in 4 and sent 2 of the quarters off to 2 sisters, and took half to our other sister and our mother. It was fine but not great and there were those gigantic pieces of maraschino cherries in it. It wouldn’t matter how small I chop up maraschino cherries, they would still be gigantic! That same year, Elizabeth, whose blog I’ve appropriated today, made cherry snowballs using dried cherries instead of the loathsome maraschino cherries. “Aha”, I thought, “I’ll do that next year for the Christmas cake!”
The next year rolled along and it came time to make the cake. One of the things I didn’t much like in Mum’s recipe was the amount of candied fruit which often has scarily unnatural colours and huge amounts of high fructose corn syrup. It occurred to me that the original bakers of this cake from however many generations back didn’t have access to commercial candied fruit and I wondered if I could use plain dried fruit, as the original bakers probably did. As I often did, I called Mum to ask permission for something I was pretty sure I was already going to do. Here’s our conversation:
I started with, “You know how much I loathe maraschino cherries, right? Well, this year, I’m going to use dried cherries…like Elizabeth used in her cherry snowballs last year. They were so good!”
Mum answered happily, “Sure! Why not?!”
I followed with “I found a bag of Okanagan dried fruit which has dried apples, apricots, red plums, black plums, and pears. What do you think of using that instead of the candied fruit in the recipe?”
“Sure! Why not?!”
I kept going, “I notice on the recipe that it calls for almonds but there’s a note that says to use a mix of almonds, filberts (hazelnuts), and cashews. Do you think it’s okay if I use pecans instead of hazelnuts? I can’t eat hazelnuts.”
“Sure! Why not?!”
I was on a roll! I threw caution to the wind and said, “You know how it calls for strawberry jam? I have plum jam that I made 2 months ago that’s wonderful. We don’t have any strawberry jam and none of us likes it very much so I really don’t want to buy another jar and it’s only a quarter of a cup. What do you think?”
There was dead silence on the other end of the phone. And then with a VERY disapproving voice came, “No. You have to use strawberry jam, it’s the taste.”
I said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
I used the plum jam and the cake was delicious. I even confessed to Mum that I didn’t use strawberry jam and she agreed that it didn’t really make a difference. She might have said “Much of a difference” so I knew I wasn’t completely forgiven for my jam lapse.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve played with the recipe a lot-adding my own candied citrus peel, using the resulting sugar syrup to replace the lost high fructose corn syrup from the commercial candied fruit, adding a bit more salt since I use unsalted butter. Mum marinated her fruit in sherry, I use brandy or rum. This year, I used Fireball Whisky because I like the cinnamon flavour. And every year I say to myself, I’m going to remember to hold back the last third of the nuts and every year I forget. The reason is: either because I don’t really understand why I’m supposed to hold them back, or I am my mother’s daughter.
Oh, yeah, heads up! This year, I forgot to buy almonds and cashews so there are only pecans in the cake. I hope Mum would approve.
-PRM, November 2020
Dark Fruit Cake, PRM’s 2020 modifications
based on the recipe for Mum’s Dark Fruit Cake
This modified recipe makes one 10×10 cake which is about 2.5 inches thick and takes 3.5 to 4 hours to bake. All the fruit is plain dried fruit with no added sugar. Except the cherries. For some bizarre reason, sugar is included in their list of ingredients.
Fruit and Nuts
at least one day before baking the cake (I’ve done it as long as a week)
- 450 grams Thompson raisins
- 375 grams currants
- 200 grams dried cherries
- 200 grams dates
- 600 grams mixed dried fruit (from the bag of Okanagan mixed fruit from Superstore; it has red plums, black plums, apricots, apples, pears)
- 100 ml (~ 1/2 cup) brandy/whisky/rum
- Candied peel of 2 oranges, 2 lemons, 1 grapefruit. (I used the Instant Pot to candy the fruit and I keep the leftover syrup for other uses)
li>300 grams mixed almonds/pecans/cashews, toasted lightly on stovetop
- all of the fruit and nut mixture from above
- 255 grams (1+3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2.2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) double acting baking powder
- 6 grams (1 teaspoon) salt
- 2.5 grams (1 teaspoon) nutmeg
- 2.5 grams 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1.2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) powdered ginger
- 1.2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) allspice
- 1.2 grams (1/2 teaspoon) cloves
- 227 grams (1/2 pound) unsalted butter
- 225 grams (1 cup) white sugar
- 6 eggs
- 60ml (1/4 cup) sherry (or rum or whisky or brandy)
- 60ml (1/4 cup) sugar syrup from making candied peel (replaces the sugar from not using commercial candied fruit)
- 60ml (1/4 cup) jam (or marmalade, whatever you have in the fridge)
- 5ml (1 teaspoon) vanilla extract
- One or more days before Baking Day: Chop the fruit so it’s all roughly the same size. Put all the fruit into a very large bowl. I use the biggest roasting pan. Pour alcohol over fruit mixture and let stand for at least a day.
- Baking Day: Add two thirds of the toasted nuts to the fruit mixture. (I invariably add all the nuts at the same time. I toast them all first and then forget that I’m only supposed to add some of them; it doesn’t seem to matter.)
- Sift dry ingredients over fruit and nut mixture, mix thoroughly.
- In another bowl, cream butter until very soft. Gradually add white sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time.
- Add alcohol, sugar syrup, jam, and vanilla.
- Add the wet ingredients to the fruit and nut mixture; mix thoroughly. Use your hands.
- Heat the rest of the nuts in oven until piping hot (when you smell them, they are ready) and add at the very last. Mix thoroughly.
- Pour into 10×10 pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 250F for about 4 hours, or until the internal temperature is between 205 and 210°F. (I took the cake out after 3+1/2 hours because it smelled done. The internal temperature is 210F so I’m glad I didn’t wait the extra half hour.)
– PRM, November 2020
Nuts: Like Nana, Mum always used only blanched almonds, but P has used various mixtures of nuts with great success. Almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and cashews are all fine – unless someone in the family, like P, cannot eat hazelnuts. (Personally, I would be disinclined to use walnuts.)
Jam: Mum always used strawberry jam (probably because that’s what Nana used). But any jam will do. P has often used her home-made plum jam. If I were making the cake, I’d be inclined to use black currant or apricot jam, simply because that’s the kind of jam we tend to have on hand. (Any plums we get go into pie….)
Baking Time: Everyone’s oven runs slightly differently and even though the dial may say that the temperature of the oven is 250F, it may not necessarily be that temperature. Check the cake at around three and a half hours and take the cake out if it smells done. Check that the internal temperature is 205-210°F.
Parchment Paper: Mum always buttered the insides of paper grocery bags – we don’t even know if parchment paper was readily available when she was making the cakes. Parchment paper is definitely easier to use because it doesn’t need to be buttered! Use metal binder clips to keep the parchment paper away from the surface of the cake. (Thanks to David Tamarkin’s article “Turns Out a Baker’s Best Friend Is…the Binder Clip” on Epicurious in August 2020.)
For [Edd Kimber, author of Tin Bakes], the reason for the clips can be summed up in a simple observation: “Parchment doesn’t like to sit neatly.” When you have a thick batter, […] it can be difficult to spread it onto a piece of parchment that just won’t sit still. Securing it in place with binder clips helps tame the paper and make the spreading go smoothly. […] Kimber does have some thoughts about which clips to buy. “I like the smaller ones,” he says. “Big ones can be very tall and can get caught in the oven racks very easily.” Avoid plastic-coated clips, of course—”they’ll melt in the oven.” Wash your clips by hand.
Epicurious | Turns Out a Baker’s Best Friend Is…the Binder Clip
Storage: Allow the cake to cool completely before cutting it into blocks as gifts. Wrap the blocks in parchment paper and place them each in their own separate zip-lock bag. We keep the zip-locked cake in a tin on a shelf in the kitchen. P pokes holes in her block of cake and drizzles in alcohol (this year she reported it is fireball whisky) over the cake before wrapping it in parchment, a plastic bag and puting all that in a cookie tin. (As wonderful as that sounds, we feel that is gilding the lily.)
The Cake Tins
Ha! I wanted Mum’s square cake pans too! (The largest is 10×10; the smallest is 4×4.) Instead, I chose to take Mum’s beautiful fluted stainless steel lidded pudding pan. I really did wish for those square cake tins too. But I knew it would be greedy to take both the pudding tin AND the cake tins. I also knew that having custody of the cake tins would mean having to make the Christmas cake every year.
Too hard! Too hard!!
Here is why P really is the better sister to have custody of Mum’s beautiful stainless steel drop-bottom cake pans:
I’ve had quite the day in the kitchen. Along with making the cake, I made mini pork pies with hot water crust pastry because I’ve been watching too many Great British Bake Off shows. Bread is rising on the counter to be baked in a couple of hours. I harvested the beets and cooked them, to be reheated later. The greens are waiting to be cooked for dinner tonight as the pies heat up in the oven. I can hardly wait for dinner.
– PRM, email, 11 November 2020
These cake pans have been used for countless Christmases and all of our weddings. We’re not positive, but we think Nana used the tins to make Mum and Dad’s wedding cake as well.
For as long as I can remember, Mom has made the cake each year for Christmas. She also made it for our weddings. I used to love coming home from school on the day that she and my Godmother made the cake. At lunchtime, the baby’s bathtub that they used for mixing would be full of cake batter – smelling of spices and brandy. We would get to stir the batter. I loved the feel of the big wooden spoon in my hand and the thrill of stirring the gemlike fruit and nuts in the bathtub as I made my wish. And then after school, the house smelled even more wonderful with the even more intense smell of spiced cake and whatever Mom and my Godmother were preparing for dinner. And my Godfather would come home from work with Dad and we’d all sit around the dining room table, laughing and chattering about the day’s events, excited about Christmas being just around the corner.
– me, blog from OUR kitchen | Lucky Us, 4 December 2005
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» Candied Citrus Peel and Ersatz Stollen (BBB December 2011)
» Mum’s Dark Fruit Cake recipe (actually, it’s Nana’s (Mum’s mother) recipe….
» Better Late Than Never not-Champagne Babas (BBB December 2017)