NO FRUITCAKE ever smelled better than Maureen Bunyan's while it was baking the other morning. Redolent with wine and rum, brown sugar, spices and the kinds of fruits almost everyone likes (no citron or candied cherries in this cake), it may not be a looker, but it sure beats the taste of any commercial fruitcake and many of the homebaked varieties; too.
Bunyan's recipe came to Washington from British Guyana (now Guyana), via Aruba and Wisconsin. It has been handed down in her family from grandmother to mother to daughter. While Bunyan's grandmother was still alive she would send the cakes from Guyana every Christmas to the family in Wisconsin. Now Bunyan's sister has taken over the job. She was expected in Washington earlier this week to help Bunyan make the cakes and tell a reporter their history. When she was unable to come, Bunyan had to cope and managed splendidly, even though she hadn't made one in 15 years. Bunyan has made her reputation as a television anchorperson, not as a cook.
She encoutered some problems only when she tried to burn the sugar for the darker version of the cake the night before. "The place still smells, I don't have a back door to open," she said.
"Last night when I was doing the brown sugar I had a sense of deja vu, of the brown sugar burning in my mother's kitchen. She used to put up old sheets over the refrigerator and counters to keep the place clean. Then she'd hang up a sheet between the kitchen and dining room. And we had a back door."
Making the cakes was a family production. The pounds and pounds of fruits and nuts had to be chopped by hand. There were no food processors then.
The recipe, of course, traces its roots back to England. The British ruled Guyana for many years and, as is always the case, left behind some of their cooking -- adapted, of course, to what is indigenous to the area: rum, sugar cane, nuts and fruits. The Guyanese use a lot of sugar because it acts as a preservative. So does alcohol. And the fruitcakes can be kept for several months.
The fruit and nut mixture in the wine will also keep a long time. And the longer it sits in the wine the softer it will be, the heavier and richer the cake.
For those who have always avoided fruitcakes because of the glaceed fruits, this one will be a treat. And there's just enough time to get the fruits and nuts soaking before the holidays. BRITISH GUYANA FRUITCAKE (Makes 4 cakes) Fruit Mixture: 5 ounces unsalted pecans 8 ounces slivered almonds 1 pound currants 1 pound pitted prunes 1 pound white raisins 1 pound dark raisins 1 pound English walnuts 12 ounces dried apricots 3 ounces dried figs 1/4 pound pitted dates 3/4 cup light rum Sweet red wine to cover fruit (like Concord grape)
Finely chop all fruits and nuts. Combine them in a large, wide-mouthed container. Pour in rum and add enough wine to cover fruits and nuts. Let the fruit soak for at least three weeks, if not longer, up to 2 months. Stir every 10 days, adding more wine as it is absorbed. Keep container tightly covered in a cool, dry place. Cake: 1/4 pound butter 1/4 pound dark brown sugar 3 eggs 1 cup unbleached flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon allspice 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon vanilla
In a very large bowl, beat butter until pale and light. Add brown sugar and beat well. Beat eggs until thick and lemon colored. Add eggs to sugar mixture at low speed. (Don't worry if mixture separates.) Add dry ingredients to sugar/egg mixture at low speed, mixing well. Stir vanilla into batter and then the fruit mixture. If fruit mixture is wet, drain off some liquid. The fruit should be moist but not dripping. Mix very well.Pour into greased and floured 8 inch cake pans, filling 2/3 full. Bake at 300 degrees for 60 to 80 minutes, until very well done, testing each cake with a toothpick before removing.
OPTIONAL: For a very dark fruitcake, spread 1/2 cup brown sugar in an old, expendable deep pan. Cook it until sugar is melted and black. Add 1/2 cup sweet red wine. Stir well and strain. Add to cake batter along with fruit. Do the "burning" in a well-ventilated area, like a garage or porch.
After the cakes have cooled, remove from pans and wrap well in aluminum foil. Serve either warm or cold. Cake can be "sprayed" with more wine, to make it moister. If you are going to serve it warm and reheat it, it definately should be sprinkled with additional wine.