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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Boneheads and ham bones.

I had a bowl of ham bone soup this morning as I wondered about what to blog next. “Ice cream might be interesting,” I thought, as I scooped up some tender, pink ham that had fallen off the bone. “Maybe I could try making injera for the first time.” A big mouthful of hickory smoke-infused beans warmed my belly. “Or I can finally get around to using that Chinese white fungus.” My spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl for the last bits of pepper-speckled goodness. I sighed my contented post-Christmas ham bone soup sigh and washed the dishes.

Ham bone soupThree hours later I hit my proverbial forehead with my proverbial knuckles and let out a proverbial “D’oh!” Fortunately I had soup left. I’m sorry it looks a little green. Legume soups don’t photograph well, as you know if you’ve ever seen Poltergeist (the movie, not a real poltergeist, although I bet the typical poltergeist diet isn’t photogenic either).

My father started the ham bone soup tradition after we dined on a magnificent smoked ham that redefined the watery hams we’d known until then. Since then we have always bought the same ham for Christmas, and we have always made the same ham bone soup. Well, almost the same. The first soups were so thick that they ate like porridge. My parents could never seem to nail the bean to water ratio, and the soup would disintegrate into a thick mass that stuck to the spoon if you held it upside down. We still loved it. When I took over the holiday cooking, the soups thinned a bit, but I kept much of the thickness out of sentiment.

This year I decided to dump sentiment and make a decent soup that you can’t eat with a fork. It’s the best version yet. The 2006 soup contains navy beans, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, split green peas, and regular brown lentils. The benefit of mixing legumes is that the large beans stay whole but the smaller legumes melt into the soup and give you a rich texture without the bother of pureeing scalding soup. Just about any combination of legumes will work except maybe kidney beans which take a long cooking time that might melt the other legumes too much. You can, of course, use just one kind of legume such as the traditional split pea. Like most soups, this soup reheats well and tastes just as good, if not better, days after it’s made.

BONEHEADED HAM BONE SOUP

Ingredients:
· 1 very meaty ham bone from a whole or half ham, preferably smoked
· 8 cups water
· 1/2 pound assorted dried beans, soaked overnight
· 1/2 pound assorted quick-cooking legumes such as split peas and lentils
· 1 bay leaf
· 1 large onion, diced
· 2-3 large carrots, sliced into coins
· Salt and black pepper

1) In a large pot, bring ham bone to a boil in 8 cups of water over high heat. Lower heat, cover the pot, and simmer the bone for at least two hours.

2) Add the drained beans, legumes, and bay leaf to the water. Cover the pot and simmer for half an hour, stirring occasionally.

3) Add the onions and the carrots, and continue simmering the soup until the beans are tender, anywhere from half an hour to an hour more. Add some water if the soup is too thick for your taste.

4) Season to taste with salt and copious amounts of fresh ground black pepper.

How to be Asian on Christmas: sesame seeds.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when out from the kitchen
Came the crashing of cake pans and loud plaintive bitchin’;
The oven mitts hung by the oven with care
But cream, milk, and salt were spilled everywhere.

The egg shells were nestled all snug in the trash,
While I hastily gift-wrapped toy trains and some cash.
The cookies are filled now, and I in my cap,
Need to drink some hard liquor and have a long nap.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and/or bottoms up everyone. :p

Sesame seed thumbprint cookiesSESAME SEED THUMBPRINT COOKIES

Ingredients:
· 1 cup butter, softened
· 1/2 cup white sugar
· 1/2 teaspoon salt
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· 1 1/2 cups sesame seeds
· 3 cups all-purpose flour
· 1/2 cup plain yogurt
· Icing or jam
· Holiday sprinkles (optional)

1) Toast sesame seeds in a pan over medium heat until they turn a shade darker and smell nutty. Let cool completely.

2) Preheat oven to 325ºF.

3) Beat butter until soft. Add sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and sesame seeds and beat until blended. Add flour, beat until well blended. Then beat in yogurt until just mixed.

4) Shape dough into 2-inch balls and place on a baking sheet. Press indentation in the middle of each cookie—cookie may crack, which is fine. These don’t spread much, so they can be placed quite close together. Bake 30 minutes and let cool.

5) Fill indentation with sweet jam or the icing of your choice. Sprinkle with sprinkles, if desired.

Note: You can choose not to indent the cookies and simply roll the cooled cookies in powdered sugar.