In the kitchen, it is fun to experiment with an ingredient, explore its range and consequently re-interpret it. I am a student of food, forever taken by the many faces of it, so much that occasionally while daydreaming a whole personality and scenario might emerge out of something as mundane as a loaf of bread. Recently while looking at a photo of a sweet blushing cake demure in a shower of powder white sugar and topped with a single ruby rose, I imagined this charming confection to be the embodiment of Ivonne its creator over at Creampuffs in Venice. The thought evolved into a question between the two of us: What kind of dessert would best personify you?
The first response might be to utter the name of one’s favorite dessert, but that is not necessarily the same thing, although supposedly we are what we eat. Almost immediately two portraits come to mind: Croquembouche- a highly stylized pyramid of cream puffs bedecked in dramatic flourishes of nougat and spun sugar or Fruitcake- deep, dark and mysterious jeweled from within, a little going a long way. I admit that Croquembouche appeals to the inner fantastical me, the side that dreams of parading around in dramatic brocade period pieces and wig or donning on a native costume embellished with winking abalone shells, tightly anchored rows of hummingbird feathers and a necklace of porcupine quills. But the vision doesn’t make the translation to outer reality; there is no walk on the wild side for me. Far too practical minded, I decorate my drama with restraint. Which brings me to fruitcake and believe me, I know how that sounds. You see I had a fruitcake conversion about three years ago, climbing my way up from hermit cookies to pfeffernusse, from Pannetone to Panforte.
J_ was making a groom’s cake in honor of her niece’s upcoming marriage. The plan was to make a traditional English dark fruitcake to give away as wedding favors to the attendees. I heard about this wonderful recipe which served over one hundred people, the special deep hatbox shaped pan the cake was baked in, the precise way to slice an individual serving and parcel it up for gifting. It seemed like a lot of work, one year in advance. Time to age and improve it-- or so the plan was. A drunken bevy of fruit was made. Instead of a few cups of brandy, two bottles were used, the fruit macerating silly for months. Brilliant I thought, cheering her on from the side lines of my home. I really didn’t hear about the cake for months while it ripened in dark secrecy, until it was time for the unveiling and partitioning. What I remember later about that conversation was a lot of frustrated hand gestures and fragmented sentences conveying bungled up geometry. Essentially one is trying to get the most slightly-bigger-than-a-matchbox slivers out of a deep form. After a lot of effort, the cake was cut into pretty packages and what remained was a mountain of crumby bits. Apparently the long soak drove the moisture content up and the cake lost its structural integrity. Though only morsels they represented much more in time, effort and cost. With that she salvaged the remains gathering them up into plum sized nuggets and enrobed the sweetmeats in dark chocolate. This was my re-introduction to fruitcake and it was ambrosial. Since then I have been haunted by the taste. It had a depth, richness and complexity that lingered on the tongue and crept up into my nasal cavities, perfuming me from within with spice and warmth and goodness.
Fruitcake is beautifully strong on the outside. It possesses a simple uncluttered line whether brick like loaf or high waisted ring. (Generally) It doesn’t go-to-pieces when cut, leaving a messy residue of crumbs behind. A slice is a vision to behold, stained glass mosaic revealing an inner sanctum of bounty and grace. I secretly wonder if in addition to incense, frankincense and myrrh, the three wise men came bearing fruitcake to the newborn King. The cake is the proverbial horn of plenty, treasure trove of riches, a storehouse of goodness. No wonder men of God busy themselves in the production of this sacred food. Historically it has been suggested that it was made after harvest time in gratitude, eaten to celebrate and bless the next year’s crop. I can appreciate the fact that these cakes were used in ceremony and that they are made to last, merging the practical with the symbolic. It also has been said that Queen Victoria only ate this high calorie, well preserved decadently rich treat once a year upon her birthday. She believed this restraint showed the proper amount of good taste. While a touch on the prudish side, I can still relate.
The cake is a colorful map of time and place. It is a citizen of the world with a collection of ingredients hailing from all over: Medjool dates from Morocco, Turkish sultanas and apricots, pecans from Texas, Sri Lankan cinnamon and cognac from France. The recipe and process are both simple and direct, yet allow for spontaneous customization. I resonate with a process that can be done in slow meditative fashion- the lengthy accumulation of ingredients, the shelling and roasting of nuts, the slicing of dried/candied fruit, the soak in good spirits, and the long low bake in the oven. Still yet, the good cake is drizzled again with more liquor and set away to cure and improve with age. The transformation once complete allows all disparate parts to meld and softly underscore each other creating a sweet that is sophisticated yet down-to-earth, spiced without being frenzied, bold yet subtly subdued and truly something of heaven and earth. Eaten as refreshment with some bracing black tea, dark chocolate dipped fruitcake reminds me of how splendid and bounteous life can be.
And how about you, what kind of dessert would you be?