Dark Fruit Cake Rant
This is addressed to those of English Heritage of all ages who may be living in one of the far-flung colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, BWI, US, and elsewhere). It may even be addressed to some Brits who are tired of store-bought stuff. I am an Anglo-Canadian living in California.
Every once in a while, our thoughts may harken back to a Dark Fruit Cake as prepared according to old family recipes. This happened to me in July this year (about the time of year to start preparing Christmas Pudding and such). [Remember that, in my elder years, I am trying to develop some home cooking skills]. So, I did the typical google search and was somewhat taken aback by what I found. Yes, you can order Fruit Cake on Amazon in California. (In retrospect, perhaps that is what I should have done as you will see if you read on.)
but the cost is greater than USD$ 20 per pound! Now, I am not denigrating these products in any way since I have not tried them. They might be quite good! However, the Jane Parker product just says fruit and nuts in a 2/3 proportion and does not list other ingredients. The Claxton Fruit Cake actually lists the ingredients:
There are many similar products available at lower or greater cost, but I thought to myself
“Hold on”, did my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother use all those chemicals? Of course not! It was time to go on-line to see how home cooks make Dark Fruit Cake and I prepared a spreadsheet of some various recipes (including the one my mother used from “Wimodausis” [Canadian]):
and then another “Whoa” moment! What is in ‘candied fruit’? Well, commercially available Candied Fruit contains the typical mélange of preserving chemicals and artificial colors (e.g., see Claxton Fruit Cake ingredients above). Now I am not an anti-chemical nut (I am an organic chemist by training), but I thought to myself that our ancestors did not have access to these things; ‘How did they preserve fruits?’. The answer is sugar (not honey btw). So, I took a detour into the making of candied fruit. Naturally, there are as many ways of making candied fruit as there are cooks and cookbooks.
Any fruit can be ‘candied’: fresh, dried, canned, and frozen. What the heck, it may be possible to candy potatoes or pork chops!
Note that many dried fruits are preserved with sulfur dioxide and the like and may contain FD&C colors; it was my intention to completely avoid such substances. Through trial and error, I found that ‘blanching’ preserved fruits in boiling water for 5 – 7 minutes followed by quick cooling and rinsing seems to do the trick. Since the coloring agents are mainly removed, I assume that preservatives are significantly reduced if not entirely removed. Here is an example using Paradise® Old English Fruit and Peel Mix (available at Amazon for USD $23.00/lb.) before blanching and after blanching for 7 minutes.
A little bit longer blanching may remove all the color but then, I fear, there may be a big loss in flavor. In any event, why go there when you can make your own fruit from scratch.
The blanching process works well for dried fruits preserved with some sulfur dioxide processing.
Unfortunately, since cherry season is long over in California, I cannot make much comment on those fruits with the lurid red and green neon (one writer uses the term ‘atomic’) coloring. I tried using canned light-colored cherries and Watkins® Assorted Food Coloring (no artificial dyes) – the results were much less than spectacular since the natural dyes do NOT survive the sugar boiling process. After some research (see far below, or perhaps separately?), I decided not to follow up with these terrifically processed eye catchers. We are looking toward a ‘dark’ fruit cake after all.
“OK! OK! John – get on with it.”
Wear apron, gloves, and eye protection!!! Hot sugar-water spatters are no fun at all!
- Slice fresh fruit in rounds approximately ¼ inch (5 mm) thick: Grapefruit, Orange, Lemon, Lime, Kiwi, Apple, Mango, Pineapple, whatever.
- Blanch any dried fruit to remove sulfites, etc.
- In a large deep, uncovered pot (7 quart or more) mix 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar (some recipes use different ratios of water to sugar) and heat on medium-high until temperature reaches about 190° F (88° C). Very carefully slide in some fruit slices (maybe 10-12, but do NOT over-crowd the pot).
- Every 15 minutes check the temperature of the syrup and gently move fruit around.
- After 1 – 1.5 hours the temperature will rise as the water evaporates away and the fruit will begin to become translucent. When the temperature reaches 206 – 210° F (97 – 98°C), the fruit should be translucent and ready for removal.
- Carefully transfer slices to a draining rack and allow to cool. Remember there is sticky sugar syrup so it is good to have lots of parchment paper around.
- Expect to spend most of a day or two tending to multiple batches of different fruits.
- The candied fruit now requires a certain amount of drying. If you overdo this, you can always rehydrate in a little water before using. There are several methods suggested, all of which lay the individual slices on parchment paper on baking sheets or trays:
- Place in 120°F oven for 4 -5 hours or longer. My oven has a minimum temperature setting of 170° F so I gave the trays 30-minute bursts at 170°F and then let cool for several hours (perhaps 5 – 6 times). I found this to be the better method.
- Place trays in sunshine for a day (covered with a cheese cloth tent or other bug protectant). Although it is hot and dry in Sacramento [100°F – 10% humidity] my balcony faces north and does not get sun. Bring the trays in at night! Otherwise, creepy-crawlies, raccoons, and such may devour your hard work.
- If you have candied properly, you can store your fruits in airtight containers (Ziploc®, Glad®, RubberMaid®, Sterilite®, etc.) separated with parchment paper or plastic wrap for months at room temperature, maybe years in a freezer.
No color was added, and sugar is the only preservative. Can you identify the fruits in the pictures above?
And yes, I have used dried fruits such as pineapple, apricots, cherries, but the results are not particularly photogenic, although the flavors are good. Most of these do not need to be candied in order to be incorporated into the Dark Fruit Cake.
Question: “Hey John, where the heck is the Dark Fruit Cake?”
Answer: “Coming right up!”
Dark Fruit Cake (aka Christmas Cake)
In my first attempt I followed the Joy of Cooking recipe (see above):
When I embarked on this recipe, I did not really appreciate how large it would be and how hard the stirring was going to be. Fortunately, I had a large Sterilite® tub (27 quart) and sturdy wooden and steel spoons, AND I took several breaks during the day of mixing. At this time, I did not understand the concept of “batter” for fruit cake, and I ended up adding about 4 cups of water to the batter just to make it mixable with the brandied fruit mix. This was no big deal in the end.
The yield sort of reminds me of Jesus in Galilee (John 6:1–), wherein 5 large loaves and two small fishes fed a multitude of five thousand.
Many cooks call for lining the baking pans with parchment paper. Not necessary in my opinion – the silicone pans are non-stick, and I just sprayed the disposable aluminum pans with Pam® cooking spray. Sticking is not a problem.
When cooled, the loaves received a brushing with Captain Morgan® Spiced Rum and were set away in Ziploc® bags in a cupboard. I do not have a particularly cool place in my apartment.
Having done all this and second guessing, I ran across a recipe from Barbara at My Island Bistro Kitchen (PEI, Canada) – https://myislandbistrokitchen.com/2014/12/10/dark-fruitcake/
Without regret I used some of the unblanched Paradise® mix and my own remaining preservative-free fruits and raisins, etc., in order to follow her recipe. Barbara’s recipe actually provides detailed how-to instructions!Wow! This is great!
Note that neither preparation has any particularly garish colors – and both have loads of flavor.
So, was all this effort worth the effort and cost?
In one way YES to the extent that it was a challenge, it was fun, I learned a lot, and I have loads of delicious Dark Fruit Cake to dump on my family and neighbors (not sure about friends).
In another way NO if you consider dollar and cents costs. I will talk about this in a separate post under ‘Facts and Figures’ – ‘Dark Fruit Cake Costs’. Cost-wise I would have been much better off just ordering some commercial product on Amazon.