Christmas Cakes and stars on the front porch are major part of my memories of X’mas in Kerala. It did not matter whether you were a christian or not, stars and the fruit cakes were enjoyed by all. Here was a recipe that in all probability was introduced by the Europeans, embraced by locals who turned it into their own. Christmas Fruit Cake was filled with dry fruits and nuts, generously spiced and enriched with butter and eggs. This is one celebration cake that stands own its own – no frills needed. Tender, sweet , spicy and fruity it was indeed a treat to wait for. Served with a glass of homemade wine , these were simply irresistible .
In the olden days these were made only during the Christmas. To make them last longer some of these were liberally soaked in alcohol for preservation. Bakeries used to place a thick layer of fondant on the cakes to preserve the freshness . When I first started baking fruit cakes, my go to recipe was that of Mrs. K.M Mathews . She was among the first to catalog many of the traditional recipes of south India. Over the years it the ingredients have changed my recipe has evolved into what I have today.
The recipe calls for some prep work ahead of time.The very first step is to chop the dry fruits and soak them in rum /brandy. I know many who start soaking fruits weeks if not months in advance. Usually the fruits will be a combination of black and golden raisins and dates . Interestingly these were not native fruits in Kerala and were shipped from far . Lacking proper food storage and transportation facilities these were dried until every last ounce of moisture was taken out . A touch of alcohol brought the fruits back to life without significantly raising the water content. The long baking time of these cake ensured that virtually all the alcohol got cooked away. Now a days it is easier to find dried fruit that are still soft, so this long soaking is not as important as it was. I would still recommend soaking for a few hours at least , giving it a few shakes in between to distribute the alcohol evenly.
Another dried component was the candied orange peel. Oranges were not an indigenous crop of South India . The candied citrus peel would have been a way to incorporate the citrus that was only available seasonally . Personally I am not a fan of all that synthetic coloring that goes into commercially available candied citrus or (tuti fruti ). One can make the candied citrus peel at home , but with fresh oranges being available pretty much year around I prefer to add the zest.
It is very important to start with room temperature ingredients. Get the butter , eggs and milk out of the fridge , if you haven’t done so already. The next step is to caramelize sugar. Heat sugar (4 tbsp) in a heavy bottomed pan . Keep the heat at medium till the sugar melts , then reduce to low. Once the melted sugar turns brown (caramel) add 1/2 cup of hot water to it . Be careful of the steam being generated . Increase heat to medium . Some sugar might have lumped up . Give it a good stir and let it come back to boil . Turn the heat off once the liquid starts to boil. Cool a bit add the milk to bring the total liquid volume to 1 C (for the recipe below).
Prepare the pans . I usually butter the pans and line with parchment paper and give the sides a tall collar. The tall collar helps the cakes to rise evenly without forming a muffin top, especially when planning to make tall cakes.
Sift the dry ingredients together – the flour , baking powder , the powdered spices and salt. Add caraway seeds , if using , and give the mix a good stir. I like to crush the caraway seeds lightly in a mortar and pestle before using. Set aside . Cream the butter and sugar, reserving 2 tablespoons of sugar. Here I were using fine sugar , if you have large sugar granules give in a buzz in the food processor.
Separate the egg into whites and yolks. If some white gets mixed in with the yolk there is nothing to worry about but there should be no yolk in the whites. Ensure that the bowl containing the yolks do not have any traces of fat/oil in it as well. The eggs whites are to be whipped into stiff peaks, and is an important factor in the structure of the cake. Beat egg whites with a little sugar and lemon juice (or a pinch of cream of tartar) till stiff peaks form.
Mix in the yolks to the butter sugar mixture . Add them one by one. You will notice the mix changing color. Add orange and lemon zest as well as vanilla essence and mix well . Drain the dry fruits and discard any excess alcohol (up to you 😉 ) ,add 1 tablespoons of the flour mix to it and toss to coat . Combine the fruits with the butter sugar mixture and set aside . Take 1 tablespoon flour and toss with the chopped nuts .
Add the flour and the liquid in parts to the fruit mix to form a thick batter . Start and end with flour . Gently fold in the nuts.
The batter at this stage is thick. Loosen the batter by stirring in part of the egg whites. Fold in the rest of the egg whites gently, taking care to retain as much of the air captured in the egg whites as possible. Transfer to the prepared pans . Smooth the tops and place the pans in preheated oven . Bake 40 to 60 minutes depending on the size of the pans and the depth of the cakes . The cake is done when tops brown and a tester /tooth pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
The recipe is perfect for three 6 inch circular pans or one 8 or 9 inch circular pan. These cakes can be made very tall – 3 inches being quite common. For taller cakes use a collar and adjust the baking time accordingly.
Cool in the pan for 5 minutes , before transferring to a rack to cool completely The flavors in this cake mature with time . If you plan to keep it for longer than a few days you can brush it with rum/brandy and store in an airtight container at room temperature. The alcohol is intended to keep it from drying out and going stale. Alternately these can be refrigerated or frozen.
X'mas Fruit Cake
- All Purpose Flour / Whole wheat Pastry Flour - 250 gm 1 1/2 C
- Chopped dry fruits - 500 gm roughly 3 C loosely packed
- Rum/brandy - 1/2 C
- Chopped nuts - 100 gm 3/4 C loosely packed
- Butter - 225 gm 1 C or 2 sticks
- Sugar - 270 gm 1 1/4 C Divided
- Eggs - 4
- Baking Powder - 1 Tsp
- Salt - A Pinch
- Cloves - 1 Tsp Powdered
- Cinnamon - 1 1/2 Tsp Powdered
- Nutmeg - 1/4 Tsp Freshly Grated
- Caraway Seeds - 1 Tsp lightly crushed
- Vanilla Essence - 1 Tsp
- Orange Zest - 1 Tbsp
- Milk - 1/2 C
- Hot Water - 1/2 C
- Lemon -1
- Pour the brandy/rum over the chopped fruits , toss well and set aside covered for several hours (or few days).
- Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature . Prepare the caramel by heating 4 Tbsp sugar over medium heat . Once the sugar turns brown add 1/2 C hot water , stir and bring to a vigorous boil till all the solids are dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- Preheat the oven to 400 °F (200 °C) (See notes ).
- Sift the dry ingredients - the flour , baking powder, salt , and the spice powders together and set aside. Cream the butter and suga , reserving 2 tbsp sugar .Separate the eggs whites and yolks .Add the yolks one by one to the butter mixture and mix well .Mix in the orange and lemon zests and vanilla essence . Toss the dry fruits in 1 tbsp flour add to the butter mix.
- Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks along with 2 tbsp sugar and 1 tsp lemon juice . Add the milk to cooled caramel to make 1 C liquid. Add 1 tbsp flour mix to the chopped nuts and toss to coat well.
- Add the remaining flour and caramel mixes in parts to the butter mixture to form a thick lump free batter . Fold in the the nuts . Stir in part of the beaten egg whites to loosen the thick batter . Gently fold in the rest of the egg whites .Transfer to the prepared pans .
- Bake for 10 minutes , reduce the temperature to 350°F and bake for additional 30 to 50 minutes (refer to notes ) or until the tops are browned and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Cool in the pan for for 5 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely .Store in an airtight container.
- Start baking these cakes at high temperature.
- When using whole wheat flour for baking increase the liquid content by 3 to 4 tablespoons.
- The dry fruit mix changes the colors as well as the flavors of the cake . If you like it darker add more black raisins / dates and increase golden raisins for more of a yellow shade . You can experiment with currants , dried cherries , cranberries , figs , apricot and a variety of other fruit .
- For these cakes I typically preheat my oven to 400 °F (200 °C). Once the cake is placed in the oven the temperature is reduced to 350 °F (175 °C). If the cake is being baked for over 40 minutes I further reduce the oven temperature to 325 °F (160 °C)
- Cinnamon , cloves and nutmeg are the spices used here , but these cakes are spiced with cardamon , ginger , mace as well .
- For darker flavors add a a tbsp of espresso or a pinch of freeze dried coffee granules along with 1 tbsp of cocoa powder.
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