Holiday fruitcake has plenty of detractors, and is often the butt of feeble jokes (“Anybody need a door stop?”). All I have to say to that is there’s fruitcake, and then there’s fruitcake. My mom started making fruitcake in the 70s, using a recipe she clipped from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She would get out the big earthenware bread bowl the day after Thanksgiving and combine all the fruits, nuts, and spices with rum. That bowl sat on the kitchen counter all day, and anybody could walk by and give it a stir with a wooden spoon. It scented up the whole house with a rich spicy aroma. This got mixed with just enough batter to stick the fruit and nuts together, poured into waiting loaf pans, and baked. Once they were out of the oven and cooled, more rum was drizzled over them. Then they were wrapped and set aside in a dark place to age.
I loved that fruitcake, although I found the green-tinted pineapple chunks and violent red candied cherries objectionable. What I wanted were the dark raisins, currants, and almonds. When I was an art student in Idaho, Mom would send a small fruitcake right before finals week. A slice of that was my reward for finishing term papers and surviving painting critiques.
Years later, I obtained a photocopy of that original recipe clipping and started making my own fruitcake. Never content to follow a recipe exactly as written, I experimented with alternatives to the unnaturally colored candied fruits. Dried fruits plumped up well, and were just as tasty. I used bourbon instead of rum. It was all good. A small loaf or a few slices were added to cookie plates I shared with friends and neighbors. There was no feedback at all, and I began to suspect most people are afraid of fruitcake. I haven’t made it in several years because I can’t eat it all myself.
My friends Joan and Gordon, who have made several trips to Italy, introduced me to Pan Forte di Siena. This is more of a confection than a cake, a flat disk of nuts and fruits dusted with powdered sugar. Slim wedges are cut and enjoyed with espresso. It’s pretty good, although it does contain candied citron which I find almost too processed to pass for edible. Then I stumbled across a recipe for chocolate pan forte–oh my. That Dark Matter that makes all things well, studded with dried cherries and hazelnuts and dusted with cocoa. This is the Ultimate Fruitcake.
The recipe (adapted from Martha Stewart [Yes, I know. My dirty little secret. But it’s YUMMY!]):
1 cup whole hazelnuts
1 cup dried cherries (I dry my own, both sweet and sour)
4 tablespoons brandy
6 ounces of really good bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate (or a combo), chopped
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup honey
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
Soak the cherries in the brandy for at least a half hour.
Toast the nuts in a 350 degree oven, in a single layer on a pan. This should take about 10 minutes, till fragrant. Roll the warm nuts in a clean tea towel to remove skins. Set aside the skinned nuts.
Reduce oven heat to 300. Butter a 9″ springform pan. Fit a circular piece of parchment in the bottom of the pan and butter it also.
Combine the brandied cherries with the nuts and chopped chocolate in a bowl. Sift the flour and cinnamon into another bowl.
Combine honey and sugar in a small saucepan and heat until boiling, while stirring. Reduce the heat and simmer for two minutes. Combine with the fruit and chocolate, stirring until chocolate has melted. Fold in the flour and mix till combined. Pour into the prepared springform pan. With wet hands, pat the batter to the edges to form an even layer.
Mix 1 tablespoon flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 tablespoon good cocoa powder in a cup, and sift over the unbaked cake. Bake for 30 minutes. Edges will be set, but center will still be soft. Remove from oven and cool. Pop the springform pan off, peel away the parchment, and brush away the excess flour topping. Store in an airtight container and slice into wedges before serving. Can also be wrapped up and sent to friends.
**It is possible to overbake this. I have been fooled by the soft center and left it in the oven too long, which makes the edges extra chewy and hazardous. And sour cherries are highly recommended, for a taste zing.
I had some just a little while ago, with a cup of spicy green tea chai. Just the thing when taking a break from watercolors. Now that you know about Pan Forte, you never need fear fruitcake again. Enjoy! Next month we will go back to brown rice and broccoli.