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. This celebration cake hardly needs any frills. This Christmas Fruit Cake was filled with dry fruits and nuts, generously spiced and enriched with butter and eggs. 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 .
Chopped dry fruits - 500 gm (roughly 3 C )
Rum/brandy - 1/2 C
Chopped nuts - 100 gm (3/4 C)
Butter - 225 gm (1 C)
Sugar - 250 gm ( 1 to 1 1/4 C)
Eggs - 4
All Purpose Flour / Whole wheat Pastry Flour - 250 gm (1 1/2 C)
Baking Powder - 1 Tsp
Salt - A Pinch
Cloves - 1 Tsp
Cinnamon - 1 1/2 tsp
Nutmeg - 1/4 tsp (freshly grated)
Caraway Seeds - 1/2 Tsp
Vanilla Essence - 1 Tsp
Orange Zest - 1 Tbsp
Milk - 1/2 C
Hot Water - 1/2 C
Pour the brandy/rum over the chopped fruits , toss well and set aside covered for several hours.
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 . Set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 °F (200 °C) (Refer to notes ).
Sift the dry ingredients - the flour , baking powder, salt , and the spice powders together and set aside .Cream the butter and sugar , 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 2 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 1/2 C milk to cooled caramel to make 1 C liquid. Add 2 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 40 to 60 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.
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The recipe calls for some prep work ahead of time. I know many who start soaking fruits weeks if not months in advance.
The very first step is to chop dry fruits and soak them in rum /brandy. This is often done days 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 grate the zest . But it is a matter of personal preferences .
It is very important to start with room temperature ingredients . So this is the time to 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.
Prepare the pans . I like to butter 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 .
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 . Set aside . Cream the butter and sugar, reserving 2 tablespoons of sugar . Always start with room temperature butter and eggs . Here I were using fine sugar , if you have large sugar granules give in a buzz in the food processor .
Separate the whites and yolks . Some white in yolk is not an issue , 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 .
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 off any excess alcohol ,add 2 tablespoons of the flour mix to it and toss to coat . Combine the fruits with the butter sugar mixture and set aside .
Beat egg whites with the reserved 2 tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon lemon juice till stiff peaks form . Take 2 tablespoon flour and toss with the chopped nuts . Mix milk to the caramel syrup . Set aside.
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 very 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 .
These cakes can be made very tall . 3 inches is quite common .
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 .
- The dry fruit mix determine the hue 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 .