If you think giving the same Christmas gift to everyone on your list is overly democratic, you are probably a Republican. I am not. And fruitcakes, about 20 of them, were what my husband and I made for our friends and relatives for three years running awhile back.
I'm thinking of doing the same thing again this year, but if so, I'll have to start soon. The first year, we were already soaking dried fruits and nuts in rum by Labor Day. We used a new, plastic garbage pail for this, and every day for a week or so we stirred the mixture with the scrubbed-and-scalded fireplace shovel.
The recipe we used was for a Jamaican Spiced Black Fruitcake and has been modified along the way. A Jamaican friend says it tastes just like Jamaican wedding cake, which is supposed to last for 25 years.
We've kept some of our cakes at least four years in their original wrappings of waxed paper and aluminum foil and a plastic bag--in a dining-room hutch in a house without air-conditioning. Why keep them so long? They do improve with age. Every year, measurably. To trick is to keep them. Hiding helps.
First, some tips on shopping for ingredients. If you balk at dried fruit prices or your arm muscles ache from carrying, remember you are Christmas shopping. Bring along your calculator. Whether you buy in boxes or in bulk from bins, it will help to know the equivalent one-pound measures for:
Almonds, whole, blanched: 3 cups
Currants: 3 1/4 cups
Dates, pitted: 2 1/2 cups
Figs, chopped: 2 2/3 cups
Prunes, pitted: 2 1/4 cups
Raisins, seeded: 3 1/4 cups
Raisins, seedless: 2 3/4 cups
The stress is on whole for the glazed cherries. Avoid the rather dry, prechopped varieties. Candy counters will have the other. We bought ours at Murphy's downtown. Candy counters also sell large slices of citron, much superior to the pale, prechopped bits sold in plastic containers.
For 20 fruitcakes, here's the procedure: JAMAICAN SPICED BLACK FRUITCAKE (Enough fruit for 20 cakes, enough batter for 2 cakes) For the fruit: 30 cups Jamaican rum 32 1/2 cups dried currants 22 1/2 cups seedless golden raisins 20 cups muscat or other seeded dark raisins 15 cups dried figs, chopped 15 cups whole almonds, blanched, chopped and toasted 12 1/2 cups citron, chopped 10 cups dried dates, pitted and chopped 10 cups cooked and drained dried prunes, pitted and chopped 10 cups glazed whole cherries, sliced 5 cups candied citrus peel, chopped For 2 cakes: 1 cup butter 2 cups dark brown sugar, firmly packed 1 1/2 teaspoons each cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg 5 eggs 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt
Assembling the fruit and nuts is the first task. If you wish to blanch your own almonds, do so by pouring boiling water over them to cover. Drain after 2 to 3 minutes. If the skins do not slip off easily when the nut is squeezed between the fingers, repeat the scalding.
To glaze your own citrus fruit, cover every two cups of peel (orange, lime, grapefruit, or lemon--just the zest, no white part) with 1 1/2 cups of cold water. Bring slowly to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes. Drain. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
For each cup of peel, make a syrup of 1/4 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar. Add peel and boil until the syrup is absorbed and the peel transparent. Dry on waxed paper sprinkled with granulated sugar.
Put all the prepared fruits and nuts into a plastic or stainless steel thigh-high container (don't use aluminum). It should hold approximately 15 gallons. Pour in the rum. Mix well. Cover with aluminum foil. You will end up with about 150 cups of fruits and nuts. Every day or so, mix well again, stirring up from the bottom.
After at least one week, you may begin to bake.
We baked in batches. For 10 days. Two cakes a day.
This is a nice way to warm a small apartment in the early fall, by the way. And it was a very small apartment in which we lived the first year we tried this. As I recall, we kept the garbage pail of fruits and nuts in the living room. Don't forget to stir every day or so, even after you begin to bake.
To make two cakes, soften the butter in a kettle or other large mixing bowl and gradually blend in the sugar and spices. Beat in two of the eggs.
Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and add 1 cup to the butter-sugar mixture. Beat in the remaining eggs.
Stir in 15 1/4 cups of the rum-soaked fruits and nuts, undrained. Add the remaining flour. Mix well.
Line 2 greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch bread pans with waxed paper. The paper should be about 8 1/2-by-12 inches--the paper's shorter ends will stick up out of the pans' longer sides like tabs. Grease the paper lightly. Divide the batter between the two pans.
Place a large, shallow pan of hot water--a roasting pan works well--on the bottom rack of the oven. Bake the cakes for about 2 1/2 hours at 275 degrees, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool the cakes in the pans one hour. Remove to a wire rack, lifting the cakes out of their pans with the waxed paper tabs. Keep waxed paper intact, and cool the cakes completely. Wrap in aluminum foil, preferrably heavy-duty, and a plastic bag. Age at least six weeks before serving.
Nothing ships so well as these fruitcakes--monsters, indestructible, weighing about 5 pounds. Pastry shops can sell you boxes for local giving.