Has my life really come to this — writing fruitcake posts? YES, as a matter of fact, it has. And it turns out the topic of fruitcake is downright fascinating!
Anca: We’ll start this fruitcake tale with Anca Hassen as a small child growing up in Romania during the days of rationing. Imagine — each person allotted a single pound of sugar per month! How to best consume one’s meager stash weighed heavy on Anca. Her cravings for sweets and passion for baking were fueled by the scarcity. By age 12 she had perfected the éclair and was entrusted with the family sugar.
Sweet story, but all too soon adulthood arrived and the childish pastry fluff was jettisoned to pursue a career in nursing at the University of Alaska. Luckily the plot here takes a predictable turn and races towards a saccharine ending: Anca takes a part-time bakery job to support her studies; One thing leads to another; Something happens to nursing; In 2007 she opens her wholesale bakery, “Pastry by Design”; And today she lives “happily ever after” making eclairs (and it turns out — fruitcake)!
Fruitcake: Fruitcake is an ancient delicacy dating back to the Romans who liked to put pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins in theirs. It “went viral” in the middle ages when literally every corner of Europe created it’s own signature recipe. Common to all the recipes were some combination of nuts and dried fruits in a batter, preserved with honey and/or alcohol. Fruitcake was revered everywhere (including the new world) as a luxurious winter treat and valued gift. That is until green maraschinos and Johnny Carson…
Now Anca doesn’t even want me to say the word “fruitcake”, but I have to disagree — her cakes are fruitcakes in the traditional European sense. She makes 3 versions for the Corner: the English “Plum Cake”, the German “Stollen”, and the Tuscan “Panforte”, each very different and delicious which we’ll describe here:
Stollen (which is supposed to resemble a swaddled baby Jesus) is a yeasted buttery bread, covered in powdered sugar, studded with raisins, currants, almonds, lemon and orange zest, and flavored with rum, sherry, nutmeg, and mace. Serve it sliced (toasted or not) with optional butter, jam or honey, and tea. Or take it to the next level and make a bread pudding out of it.
Panforte is a flat round dense chewy cake, seemingly all figs and nuts, dating back to Siena in the 1300s. Anca’s panforte contains almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, figs, honey, sugar, lemon and orange zest, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and organic cornstarch. No gluten! Serve it wedged with coffee or a desert wine after a meal.
Plum Cake is a non-yeasted bread in loaf form. Anca starts by soaking cut-up dried apricots, cranberries, raisins and currants (not a trace of plum!) in sherry for a couple days, then adding them to a brown sugar-sweetened batter with almonds, OJ, lemon zest, nutmeg and cinnamon. Excellent eaten as it is, but to be “properly British” one needs to “cure it” with a spirit upon bringing it home. Anca recommends rum, cognac, or brandy, but you could bend the rules…
Inebriating your Plum Cake: There are many you-tube videos, but basically you start by poking about 50 holes in the top with a toothpick. Soak a piece of cheesecloth in a couple tablespoons of your chosen spirit and wrap the cake. Place it on foil. Drizzle more spirit over the top and close the foil. Every couple days, unwrap the foil and drizzle a little more. Once “spirited” (you and/or the cake), serve it sliced with marscapone or lightly sweetened whipped cream.
All fruitcakes last several weeks, improving as the flavors meld and mellow, but the “cured” cakes can last up to decades or centuries, depending on the level of curing. Anca recommends getting at least 2 cakes “drunk” – one for yourself and one for a friend. More friends, more cakes. Plus, never hurts to keep additional ones in reserve considering the shelf life. Anca swears by their energizing effect and you never know when you may need a pick-me-up!
Thank you Anca and we’re so glad you dropped the nursing!
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