FARM TO TABLE
’Tis the season of the fruitcake
Long before tassels, poinsettias and Boney M, the smell of the holidays is being cooked up by the culinary Christmas elves in the form of fruitcake.
Love it or hate it, fruitcake is the undeniable taste of Christmas in South Africa, and the world over. And if you’re one of SA’s valued bakers of this firm (literally) tradition, you know that your fruitcake needs to be standing in an old-fashioned cookie tin by now, steeping in a booze-soaked cloth.
According to my mother, any self-respecting fruitcake needs to be baked and soaking by the end of October, at least. “It’s no coincidence that the last date for picking and preserving green figs falls on 17 October. You can’t pick the figs after that, or they’ll become hollow and will rot from the inside once bottled.” The timing works a charm. As soon as the figs are preserved, you can move on to baking your Christmas cake, which requires said figs.
It’s usually a two-day process, starting with the preparation of the fruits. For the cake to be able to last for months without spoiling, fruit pieces need to be either candied or dried or preserved, and then alcohol-drenched.
This brings me back to the preserved green figs. These are further prepped for fruitcake use by pressing and squeezing out most of the syrup. “You’re left with a green fig preserve mush,” says my aunt Celest Lombard, who is the latest Lombard family fruitcake baker. “Then, your dried raisins and currants need to be rinsed in clean water, then dried completely. The glazed cherries must be chopped in small pieces to prevent cavities where mould can grow.
“Remember,” she warns, “it’s going to be standing on a shelf for quite some time. All the moisture needs to be removed from the fruits before you soak them in booze in a 5 litre ice-cream container overnight.”
Next up is your baking equipment – a pot. A real fruitcake is not baked but rather steamed in a pot lined, on the inside, with three layers of well-buttered wax paper and, on the outside, three more layers of brown paper which essentially forms a steaming capsule for the batter. The cake also contains very little rising agent but loads of eggs that are whipped like crazy to form a foamy mass that will act as leavening for the heavy ingredients. It’s not meant to rise a lot.
Then, it bakes. For a total of 8 hours in the pot-slash-paper steamer, of which two hours are uncovered. Some are covered with fondant after, others not. That’s a matter of taste. However, says Aunt Celest, a genuine fruitcake must be able to last for months without any refrigeration or freezing. “That’s the politics of fruitcake baking,” she quips.
Indeed. The whole point of baking this spiced block of decadence is that it needs to last – unbridled – against all the elements. Ancient Romans are believed to have baked a similar cake more than 2,000 years ago, containing honeyed wine, dried pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins mixed into a cake made out of barley mash. The brick-like pud was easy to transport and provided needed calories to Roman soldiers.
Later, in the Middle Ages, fruitcakes made of honey, preserved fruit and spices became all the rage. So much so that by the early 18th century, the European church banned the treat except for special occasions such as weddings and christenings because it was “sinfully rich”. The ban was later lifted, but traditions were cemented and many Western festivities – particularly weddings and christenings – still have fruitcake as a celebratory snack.
That, and because it makes logical sense. The cake can be made months in advance and, due to its richness, a relatively small cake can feed a lot of wedding party guests. Score.
My great grandmother, the legendary Ouma Tok, was our family’s wedding cake baker extraordinaire. This year, aunt Celest took up the fruitcake mantle when her own daughter tied the knot. With Ouma Tok no longer there for guidance, Aunt Celest turned to Cradock’s other renowned fruitcake baker, Sisiwe Tom, who visited for two days a couple of months before the wedding.
Sisiwe says she was taught the ways of the fruitcake by her lifetime employer, Hester Van Zyl. Every year at the end of October, the two would begin their two-day baking ritual, utilising all the ingredients preserved, candied and dried in the months from January to October.
“One year, we forgot to add the baking soda to the cake,” Sisiwe laughs, “and ended up with a white Christmas cake! We couldn’t understand it… until we traced our steps and found the baking soda on the counter, untouched. We never forgot that lesson.
“Fruitcakes really are a lot of work and labour. If you give someone a fruitcake, you’ve given them a big gift,” Sisiwe says.
Indeed. Chef and fruitcake master Mynhardt Joubert currently bakes dozens of nostalgic Christmas cakes in his restaurant kitchen in Paarl. He says he was inspired to start baking these after his sister sent him a Christmas cake in the post one year, all the way from Bethlehem. “It moved me. It was so delicately wrapped in brown paper and tucked into an old cookie tin. I was going through a rough patch, and this warm gesture from someone so dear was very special to me.”
Although he wasn’t the biggest fruitcake fan at first, Mynhardt loved the gift. The next year, he wanted to bake-it-forward. Fast forward a few years and Mynhardt is the Santa Claus of Christmas cakes in SA, baking special order cakes to post all over SA – and all in support of Butterfly House, a community resource centre in which more than 300 children between the ages of two and 18 are enrolled.
“Baking these cakes every year is a highlight for me,” he says. “For weeks my kitchen smells of spice and is a hive of activity as we line cake tins, chop nuts and dried fruit, mix and bake. Only my best wishes for the year accompanies each cake that leaves the kitchen.” (You can order one here.)
That’s the magic of fruitcake. It’s in the sharing of generational recipes and methods regardless of cultural boundaries or religions. It’s the thoughtfulness of preparing ingredients months and months in advance and using these in a two-day bake marathon – even if you hate the final product – simply to create a treasured gift for someone you love.
Start your own Christmas cake tradition this year with this special family recipe:
500 g raisins
500 g currants
500 g dates
500 g glazed cherries
1 kg preserved green figs
500 g (a mix of the following: dried orange peel, candied winter melon, dried pineapple)
500g cake flour
500g molasses sugar
pinch of salt
2 Tbsp apricot jam
¼ cup rum
¾ cup good quality brandy
1 tsp almond essence
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
1 big tsp baking soda
2 tsp milk
Day One: Preparing the fruit
Rinse the raisins and currants in lukewarm water and place on a cloth to dry completely.
Drain cherries from the glaze. Using a wet cheesecloth, pat dry to remove all syrup. Chop.
Repeat the process with the preserved green figs. Drain of all syrup and use a wet cheesecloth to pat dry. Remove the fine pips from the figs and chop.
Chop dates, dried peel, ginger preserve, pineapple and melon preserve.
Add all chopped fruits to a 5 litre container and pour over the rum, brandy and almond essence. Leave to soak overnight.
Day Two: Baking the cake
Heat the oven to 120°C.
Cream the butter and sugar with a pinch of salt.
Beat together the eggs until they are completely pale and foamy. Add the apricot jam and beat again, until completely incorporated.
Sieve together the cake flour and spices. Using a spatula, incorporate the flour, bit by bit, into the egg mixture.
Mix the baking soda with the milk and add to the mixture.
Fold in the liquor and fruit mixture.
Pour the batter into your prepared pot (lined, on the inside, with three layers of well-buttered wax paper and, on the outside, three layers of brown paper to create a “lid” for the pot.)
Place the pot on a piece of tin foil (bright side up) in the middle of your oven. Bake at 120°C for 45 minutes.
Reduce the temperature to 100°C and bake until done, for between 8 and 9 hours.
Remove the brown paper after 7 hours and allow to bake, uncovered, for the last 2 hours.
Remove from the oven and cool completely before removing from the pot.
Using a pastry brush, slather with brandy and store in wax paper in a tin. Brush with brandy on a weekly basis. DM/TGIFood