IT IS BECOMING increasingly more difficult to have a natural holiday. Fruitcake has always been part of our Christmas season, but last year I decided I didn't have the time to make my own traditional recipe, so I started to buy a popular brand. I found my family would have been eating mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60 and 80, artificial flavor, gum arabic, agar, artificial color, sodium benzoate, propylene glycol and propyl paraben along with the eggs, flour, spices and fruit.
So I decided to buy some glaceed fruit and make a cake after all. The label on the fruit described corn syrup, sugar, artificial color, liquid dextrose (three different sugars, added to a naturally sweet food!) sodium benzoate, artificial flavor and sulfur dioxide. I was stuck. Then I hit upon the idea of using plain dried fruit for our holiday cake. Candied fruit was originally marketed to substitute for the homemade product anyway so returning to the old way of doing things might reap good results. We tried it and were very excited about our discovery.
With the popularity of dehydrators, it seems likely that many people will have their own source of dried fruits, offsetting the cost a little (naturally dried fruit does tend to be more expensive that artificially colored candied peels).
First, though, a few words about dried fruit. The soft, brightly-colored fruit usually found in supermarkets has usually been treated with sulfur dioxide to prevent discoloration. Sulfur has been used since Egyptian times, when it was used to preserve wines, and except for the fact that it destroys vitamin A and leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste, it is not particularly harmful. If you prefer unsulfured fruit, however, dry your own or purchase it from a natural food store. In that case, you might want to rehydrate the peaches and apricots for a few minutes in boiling water before you begin cutting them, but do not soak them too long or they will become mushy.
Making fruitcake for Christmas was always one of the things I enjoyed doing with my mother. There were years when we couldn't afford much fruit, and we cut the raisins in half and cracked walnuts for days to get enough filling to flesh out the butter cake recipe. And there were other years when we had so much fruit that the dough was hard to find between the pieces, and I would lift whole cherries and raisins out of the freshly baked cake when mama wasn't looking.
I use the fruitcake-making just like mama did -- to get a little time with my children. We plan a whole morning for cutting and sorting fruit, for talking and singing songs, for making private plans for Christmas.
When all the nuts are cracked and the fruit is chopped, combine all the pieces in a large bowl and dredge with flour to keep them from sticking together in lumps. After your cakes are completely cooled, you can pour brandy over them and store them wrapped in plastic wrap and tinfoil for months or years (they improve with age). Or you can just take them out and eat them, although extremely fresh fruitcake tends to crumble when sliced. DRIED FRUIT CHRISTMAS FRUITCAKE 7 to 8 cups mixed pitted, dried fruit (especially good are raisins, pears, unsweetened pineapple, apricots, cherries, apples, peaches) 1 to 2 cups chopped nuts (shredded unsweetened coconut is a nice addition, too) 2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour 1 teaspoon baking powder teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg teaspoon cloves 1/2 teaspoon allspice 1/2 cup honey 1/2 cup softened butter 4 eggs 1 tablespoon dark molasses 1/4 cup brandy
Dredge chopped fruit with a few tablespoons of the flour in a large bowl. Stir together the remainder of the flour, the baking powder, salt and spices. Cream honey, butter, eggs and molasses, then stir in dry ingredients. Fold in fruit, nuts and brandy, then spoon into greased springform pans (this makes enough batter for two 8-inch pans). Bake at 325 degrees for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 20 minutes before removing from pans. i