Hidden in kitchens here and there across America are fermenting fruitcakes, those traditional holiday concoctions of dried fruit, rum, sugar and a token amount of flour. Right about now, fruitcakes made in mid-November or earlier should be kicking into gear, setting off one low-speed chemical reaction after another.
Those who truly care about continuing the fruitcake tradition should persuade one of the nature channels to produce a holiday special on the science of fruitcake. Such a program could use magnified slow-motion photography to capture the subtle changes in the fruitcake as the fermentation process wears on. Just as footage of a flower blooming can be sped up to make it seem as if this wonder of nature happens right before our eyes, so too could a fruitcake be made to ripen in just a few minutes.
Making fruitcake might then become an educational activity for the whole family. I can see it now: science fair projects about fruitcake.
This could only improve the public image of fruitcake, which seems to be the holiday confection that people have always loved to hate. My guess is that many of the people who still make fruitcake do it as a holiday ritual, an act of loyalty to forebears who themselves were carrying on tradition.
However, like many food rituals that no longer coincide with our tastes, fruitcake is less a holiday fixture than it was in previous generations. For one thing, our grandparents encountered a lot more dried fruit than we do; for another, the concept of fruitcake would have made more sense in an era in which people actually thought about food preservation.
Another factor working against fruitcake is time. To do a fruitcake as fruitcake was meant to be done requires planning and preparation more than a month before Christmas.
The following recipe short-circuits that lengthy fermentation process and produces tiny cakes that aren't true fruitcakes but still deliver on the fruitcake theme. This recipe is adapted from the "Rosie's Bakery Cookie Book" by Judy Rosenberg. Ideally, the fruit should be soaked for three to five days before it's used in the batter.
10 ounces (about 2 cups) assorted dried fruit (such as raisins, cranberries, apricots, dates), cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cup rum or brandy
1/2 cup boiling water
butter for greasing muffin pan
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons flour
3/8 teaspoon baking soda
3/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3/8 teaspoon ground mace
3/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon or orange zest
2 tablespoons molasses
2 large eggs
1/2 cup chopped pecans (1/4-inch pieces)
1/2 cup chopped almonds (1/4-inch pieces)
For the glaze:
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup rum or brandy
For the frosting:
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar
2 tablespoons plus 3/4 teaspoon rum or brandy
Combine the dried fruits and rum in a small bowl, cover and allow to sit for 8 hours, tossing occasionally. Then add the boiling water, toss and allow to sit for at least 1 1/2 days or up to 5 days.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease 36 mini muffin cups with butter.
Sift the flour, baking soda, all of the spices and salt together into a small bowl and set aside.
With an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the 10 tablespoons of butter, both sugars, vanilla and zest in a medium-sized bowl until light and fluffy, about 1 minute, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the molasses and beat on medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing on low speed.
Drain the fruits and pat them dry.
Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix until blended, 10 to 15 seconds, while scraping the bowl. Add the dried fruits and both nuts and blend with a spatula.
Spoon the batter into the muffin cups so that it is slightly mounded. Bake until puffed and set, 25 to 30 minutes.
Allow the fruitcakes to cool in the pan for 20 minutes. Then run a knife around the edge of each muffin to loosen it and gently remove from the pan.
Meanwhile, make the glaze: Place the sugar and rum in a small bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Using a small pastry brush, paint all sides of the muffins with the glaze.
Make the frosting: Place the confectioner's sugar and rum in a small bowl and whisk until creamy. Turn each fruitcake upside down and dip its top in the frosting. Then turn it right side up and allow to set for 1 hour.
Makes 36 mini fruitcakes.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.