Fruitcake, fruitcrack.

I like fruitcake, but not just any fruitcake, no, I only like—

Wait, what am I saying? I like all fruitcake. All fruitcake. If you ever wonder who buys those stale cakes at the grocery store every year, that would be me. If you spit out fruitcake because of the artificially-colored cherries and scream, “Who the [bad word] eats this [bad word]?!” the answer is me. If you don’t know what to do with the box of lead weight that your Aunt Marge sent you this week, send it to me. Cheap fruitcake, dense fruitcake, light fruitcake, boozy fruitcake, mass-produced fruitcake, homemade fruitcake, it doesn’t matter; I’ve made it, I’ve bought it, I’ve inherited it, and I’ve eaten it all. Heck, I even love colored candied fruit, and I’m sorry, but I’m not going to apologize for it.

Fruitcake, Fruitcrack, windowpaneIt comes down to being human. Something instinctively draws me to fruitcake like honey draws a bear. A bite of fruitcake makes every cell holler with gratified desire. This, the body knows, is the ultimate sustenance. Fruitcake is among the densest caloric foods without being pure fat or pure sugar. My brother took the remains of a brandy-soaked fruitcake I made one year and saved it to eat before and after he ran a marathon. He understood its value. I eat it because it’s delicious. I know many (in the U.S., at least) don’t think so, or that many people only like homemade aged fruitcakes or Christmas puddings, but I like them all. So yeah, blame people like me for propping up the day-glo fruitcake industry.

This reckless lack of discrimination among fruitcakes eventually came to an end. I remember it like it was yesterday. Actually it was last week, on December 8, with a recipe I’d been saving called “Smith Family White Fruitcake” from Jeffrey Steingarten’s delightful The Man Who Ate Everything. I wanted to make it because of Steingarten’s loving descriptions of the cake’s “frolicsome mosaic of yellows, reds, and greens.” Then he said you were supposed to refrigerate the cakes “before cutting them into thin slices while they are still cold.” I just can’t resist sexy talk like that. On December 7, I baked the recipe with modifications. On December 8, despite the instructions to let it age at least three days in the fridge, I shaved off a slice because it smelled so so so good.

Fruitcake, FruitcrackThings instantly changed. I still like all fruitcake, but now I love only this one. By all objective standards, I messed up the cake because I changed the recipe too much. I chose to soak the dried fruit ahead of time and substituted some of them. Instead of two loaf pans, the batter went into one extra long 16-cup pan. Knowing the large pan would take longer to bake, I baked it at 275 instead of 300 to avoid the dark crust that Steingarten warned is a “fatal flaw”. After two hours of baking, it didn’t look done, so I added another hour or two. By the end, the long low temperature had created a thick firm crust around the cake. This fatal flaw was…so not.

I would try to describe it, but every time I come up with an adjective I come up with another, then another: buttery, glorious, chewy, moist, heady. No one flavor dominates—you can’t even taste the raisins, which is good because I don’t really like raisins. This is a living fruitcake. It’s not the same from day to day, week to week. That thick crust starts out like a nutty crispy caramel fruitcake cookie encasing a soft fruitcake center. I couldn’t stop eating it. After four days, the whole thing became fudge-like and sweeter. I couldn’t stop eating that either. I can’t wait to see what it’s like by Christmas, when it will probably sprout wings and ascend to heaven, taking me with it where I’ll dance through fields of fruitcake flowers and sleep on fruitcake beds with fruitcake pillows. I can’t even wait to see what it’s like right now, but I’ve triple-wrapped it and sealed the package with multiple layers of packing tape because I COULDN’T STOP EATING IT AND VISIONS OF FRUITCAKE DANCED IN MY HEAD.

God help me, I want to make another one following the directions exactly this time just to compare, but what I really want is an excuse to rip off that packing tape and eat the rest of the first cake because, after all, I’m going to make more! But that would be wrong and make me so very, very fat. Besides, I can’t imagine anything better than the way I made it, mistakes and everything. So here’s my version. If the original turns out better, I’ll post an update, but I’m not counting on trying it again this year because my scale has threatened to pack its bags.

FRUITCAKE, FRUITCRACK
Adapted from The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten
Makes two large loaves, ideal for bicep curls

The original recipe is “white” because it uses no spices or dark fruit, just a pound of golden raisins and about a pound each of candied cherries and candied pineapple in assorted colors. My cake used some darker fruit and so was more brown than white. Personally, I think candied fruit is what makes this cake so fantastic, but any fruit should be fine as long as you have three pounds of it, more or less. The ingredients I’ve listed are simply what I had on hand and are not set in stone. Despite the cake’s denseness, the caramelized flavor and the citrus touches make this a relatively light fruitcake that I suspect would not benefit from spices, alcohol, or even brown sugar, but it’s your fruitcake now, do what you will.

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Late for my date.

Good grief, where have I been? This post is late late late, but here’s the problem with food blogging. By the time you post about a food in season—especially when you don’t live in California—that season is nearly over. So really, most posts about certain foods should be stored away for next year. I’m doing you a service by posting this late. Now you only have to wait nine months instead of ten for Korean dates to come into season again. Assuming you can find them at all.

Fresh Korean datesKorean dates are usually sold dried. Unlike sticky brown dates, dried Korean dates are light and papery in the hand, husk-like. They are only barely sweet. You find them worked into duk treats and pots of hot chicken juk for their medicinal value and pretty red color. The traditional Korean p’yebaek ceremony, where the bride is officially “introduced” to the groom’s family, features a moment when the bride and groom bite out of the same date. Supposedly, the one who gets the seed wears the pants in the family. My brother and his wife chose to hold a p’yebaek ceremony to combine western and Korean cultures. She got the seed.

Score one for the chicks! High five, ladies! (If he’d gotten the seed I’d be gloating at the new in-laws, so either way, I win. Ha!) Ahem.

Fresh, the firm dates range from pale green to dark brown when fully ripe. My mother planted a Korean date tree and harvested the first dates two summers ago. She gave me one from the small and precious harvest. I held it reverently. I had never seen a fresh date before, much less a Korean one. It tasted…like a foam packing peanut. And not biodegradable ones either, but peanuts your great great aunt puts in the box to keep your porcelain hippopotamus safe during shipping (happy 17th birthday!). These are the kind of packing peanuts that last 5,000 years and may be used by future archaeologists to tell them what we were (hippo god worshipers).

Bitten Korean datesI said, and I quote, “Yuck.”

I’m not the only one. My aunt doesn’t like them, and neither do that many Koreans. Even the squirrels wouldn’t touch them, and those bastards will eat anything, including 99.5% of our chestnut harvest. None of this fazed my mom. “More for me,” she said, crunching on date after date. “More for me.”

The tree produced even more dates this summer, so I let them ripen on the counter a bit and gave them another shot. Yuck. My mother insisted they were better fresh from the tree. So I tried that.

My heart holds onto some foods within an extremely narrow range. Raw apples, for instance. I don’t hate apples, but I never seek out apples unless I know that it has been picked in the last 24 hours. Golden Delicious, one of the most maligned, mealy, pathetic apples, is actually one of the greatest when it’s still alive, the powdery sap squirting onto your lips when you bite into one. I lived for falls just to go to the orchard with my family and pick a pile. There is simply nothing like a fresh apple. Grocery store apples and even most farmer’s market apples break my heart again and again. So when people ask, I just say I don’t like apples. It takes too much time and sounds too snotty to say I only like apples I picked myself. Stick it in a pie if you want me to eat it.

I’m not that picky about all foods. While I love garden-fresh tomatoes from my own yard, I don’t mind winter tomatoes in a sandwich because it has more flavor than lettuce and adds vitamins. Who cares if it’s bland? I wouldn’t make a BLT with one, but hey, it’s a veggie. Processed American cheese instead of cheddar? I’ll survive. Pepperidge Farm bagels instead of one from the corner in NYC? Life could be worse.

But on some foods, like apples, I can’t compromise. At the risk of sounding snotty, here’s a new one: I only like Korean dates that were plucked from the tree less than 12 hours ago. Any longer than that, and the essence is gone. What is that essence? The fragrance of violets, a fleeting tartness, a sweetness like the thin nectar I used to suck from wild field clover.

It’s a flavor beautiful for its subtlety and special for its brief season. If you have a chance to try one fresh from the tree, please don’t pass it up. You may not like it, but that’s okay, because that just means more for the rest of us. More for me.

Jejune to jazzy: How jam jarred me.

This past summer I found myself standing on wet gravel in a ramshackle shelter housing fresh vegetables and a stack of Yoder’s preserves. I was in lush rural West Virginia for the first time visiting a transplanted friend. She picked up a jar of blackberry jam and asked me a question that I didn’t quite know how to answer.

“Do you like jam?”

“Uh…sure.” I guess I didn’t…not like jam. It’s jam. You smear it on bread to make peanut butter taste better. It makes toast go down without sticking. You know, jam. It always tastes like overcooked fruit goo, whether it’s expensive “gourmet” pomegranate ginger jam or grape jelly on sale at the drugstore. My friend bought me the blackberry jam and assured me that it was good. I accepted the gift with no inkling of the danger hidden in that innocuous purple goop.

[Pictured: Asian pear jelly with specks of Tahitian vanilla bean]

Asian Pear Jelly

Last month I finally tasted the jam, which was more of a cross between a jam and a jelly. The vibrant color, soft set, and rich flavor didn’t change me overnight. Even Rome wasn’t built in a day. But several days later, my toaster seemed exhausted and my syrup looked forlorn when I ignored it to spread the jam on waffles. Still, I didn’t suspect anything was wrong until I started topping blueberry muffins with the blackberry jam, which was not only excessive, but insulting to the blueberries. I’d become desperate—desperate for an excuse to eat this jam without spooning it into directly into my face, or worse, throwing back my head and letting the whole jar empty into my gullet. I’m so glad that I ran out of jam before I ran out of bread, otherwise I might have started putting it on corn tortillas. Good jam rules!

Grapes

I took a pile of ripe Concord grapes and made my own jam for the first time. It wouldn’t set up, so I cooked it for a loooong time, then added pectin “just in case.” It ended up too sweet, extremely overcooked, and far too firm. Yet that screwed up jam still blew away every grape jam or jelly that I’d ever tasted before. I learned an important fact: Even bad homemade jam tastes better than most store jam.

Was it psychological? Maybe the knowledge that the Amish or I and not Mrs. Smuck, Mr. Polaner, or Ms. Goober had made the jam made it taste better. To test this theory, I bought three different local and/or Amish jams from the farmer’s market, all labeled “homemade,” and opened all of them at the same time to taste straight. Not only did those jams not rule, they didn’t even quality for minor administrative posts in the culinary kingdom. Clearly something else was at work. My guess is superior fruit and love. Love makes everything taste better.

This has ruined me. Absolutely ruined me. Until I find a better source for jam, I either have to special order from Yoder’s or make it myself. Other jams won’t cut it anymore.

Grape Jam[Pictured: How much is that jam in the window? Annie’s eternal jamnation!]

My most recent effort, pictured above, is an Asian pear jelly with Tahitian vanilla bean, a variation of a pear preserve recipe. Asian pears give up a lot of liquid, more so than regular pears apparently, so I actually ended up with three jars of preserves and four jars of jelly. My instinct on the flavoring was dead on. The flowery Tahitian vanilla combined with the winey pear flavor to make something subtle yet overwhelmingly flavorful. (Do those little black vanilla specks turn anyone else on?) This is my favorite preserve so far. Please don’t tell anybody that I licked the plate after the photo shoot.

I would post a recipe, but so far the preserves haven’t set up quite yet, though the jelly has. I can’t post a recipe that may not turn out, especially when it requires peeling, coring, and dicing juicy pears that squirt you in the eye for half an hour. When I get it right, I’ll post it, and I will get it right, because I made only seven jars of the stuff.

Somebody please hide the corn tortillas.

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The beautiful delicious:days hosted the September SHF: Can you can? Ironically, it came one month too early for me. Look at all those homemade jams! ::sob:: Just look at them!