|The Tale Of A Well Traveled Cake And The Hand That Keeps On Giving|
Fruitcake has its origins in ancient Rome where it became popular to mix pomegranate, pine nuts, raisins and barley mash into cakes that could travel. By the Middle Ages fruitcake became popular in England as a wonderful way to preserve native plums and cherries as well as heretofore unavailable fruits, such as exotic citrus peel, pineapple, and dates, which began to appear from the Mediterranean and other regions of the world as candied fruit or fruit glace.
The ability to preserve fruit by boiling it in sugar and then drying it created a new product that was not only prized but portable. Inventive cooks quickly began finding uses for this new product and some form of fruitcake soon proliferated all over Europe. The traditional English Christmas fruitcake has a wonderfully compelling complex flavor. Traditional Christmas Cakes are often fed healthy doses of brandy and spirits which during the Middle Ages was an important preservative in the dark winter months. During the Victorian Era (think Dickensian Christmas traditions) Christmas Cakes began to be embellished with beautifully rolled marzipan icing and other decorations. The Scots version of fruitcake is simpler. I might delve into the storied aspects of fruitcake and the fascinating conjectures about why the Scots version of fruitcake does not include dried cherries, for instance, in a future blog post - suffice it to say the Scots version of fruitcake is the more delicately flavored Dundee cake with its compliment of dried currants, orange peel and blanched almond. In Germany fruitcake is a yeasted bread called Stollen which is eaten during the Christmas season and sold at local Christmas markets. In Italy Panforte is the dense, chewy Tuscan fruitcake which dates back to 13th-century Sienna. In Romania Cozonac is a fruitcake that is featured at every holiday including Christmas and Easter. The Swiss make a dense sweet fruitcake from candied fruits and nuts called Birnenbrot.
Carrisa and I together in my kitchen created a collaborative and perhaps commemorative fruitcake for the year 2010 (yes we did check our calendars - keep in mind we have been perfecting fruitcake since December - and it is only spring break folks) Carrisa and I consider this cake to be our crowning achievement. The exquisite regionally inspired cake is loaded up with all of the traditional California dried fruits such as currants, raisins, dried apricots, and prunes - all organic. Did I mention California walnuts? What gives this gluten-free cake it's particularly pleasing and distinctive character is the local farmer's market honey which I infused with aromatic Buddha's Hand Citron for well over two weeks. I also threw in a healthy handful of Buddha's Hand Candied Citron which I prepared last month from the same Buddha's Hand that infused the honey. I was careful to preserve enough of the fruit glace for Christmas Cakes I intend to bake this coming October or November (Is there a 2012 commemorative cake in the works?) when I will, no doubt, be moved to declare that it is again "fruitcake season."
The Buddha's Hand Citron which I bought at the local Ojai Farmer's Market in February truly has been the hand that keeps on giving.
I baked the fruitcake pictured above - which is about the size of two hands held palms up - as well as myriad smaller cakes baked into individual rounds no larger than a muffin. This particular pictured cake - appropriately wrapped up in parchment paper like a little present - traveled back to Utah with Carrisa in her suitcase. Carrisa split the cake in Utah and the remainder traveled on to Maryland in the suitcase of Brett and Charlotte. The little cake, indeed, lived up to its historical expectations and became a well traveled cake - a veritable moveable feast.