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New-fashioned fruitcake

Fresh, delicious takes on the season’s most underappreciated dessert.

By Adam Ried
December 13, 2009

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Recently a friend proved the truth in the adage that you’re never too old for new experiences. In conversation, he spoke fondly of fruitcake, and as far as I can remember, that was the first time I’d ever heard that someone actually likes the stuff.

Having always regarded fruitcake as boozy, leaden, and at once punishingly sweet and unpleasantly bitter, I never included it in my seasonal baking lineup. But I took my friend’s faith in the holiday perennial as a challenge to reconsider the matter. The new-fashioned fruitcake here is not an actual cake as much as it is a jumble of dried fruits and nuts with just enough vanilla-scented batter to hold it all together. Panforte is a specialty of Siena in Tuscany. It’s more a honey nougat than a cake; I had tasted it in Italy and loved it, then learned that it’s easy to make at home. Mine tastes of orange and chocolate, two hallmark flavors of the season. Panforte makes a great gift, because it’s unusual and portable -- and delicious.

New-Fashioned Fruitcake

Makes A 9-by-5-inch loaf or 2 7½-by-3½-inch loaves

This recipe is adapted from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert. Medrich suggests trying a variety of dried fruits, and I particularly like the combination of mellow, caramely figs with apricots and cranberries or cherries. This is a nice sweet to serve with sherry, coffee, or after-dinner drinks, or as an accompaniment to cheese.

Unsalted butter, for the pan(s)

¾ cup flour

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon baking powder

Salt

½ cup light brown sugar, packed

1 cup halved dried figs, packed (about 6 ounces)

1 cup halved dried apricots, packed (about 6 ounces)

¾ cup dried cranberries or cherries (about 3¼ ounces)

1¾ cups walnut halves, lightly toasted and cooled (about 8 ounces)

1¾ cups pecan halves, lightly toasted and cooled (about 8 ounces)

3 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Set the oven rack in the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter a 9-by-5-inch or 2 7 ½-by-3 ½-inch loaf pans, and press a piece of parchment into the bottom and up and over the long sides (to create “handles” for removing the cake), and butter the paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, ¼ teaspoon salt, and brown sugar, breaking up lumps. Add the dried figs, apricots, cranberries or cherries, walnuts, and pecans, and toss to combine well.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs and vanilla. Add this mixture to the fruit and nut mixture, and, using a flexible spatula (or your hands), stir to combine. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the batter into an even layer.

Bake until deep golden brown, about 1 hour, rotating pan(s) halfway through baking time (tent the fruitcake loosely with foil if it seems to be browning too much). Transfer pan(s) to a wire rack and cool completely. Remove cake, slice thinly with a serrated knife, and serve. Wrapped well and stored in an airtight container at room temperature, cake keeps for about 1 month.

Variation

New-Fashioned Fruitcake with Ginger and Pineapple Follow the recipe for the New-Fashioned Fruitcake, substituting ¾ cup (about 4 ounces) chopped crystallized or candied ginger and ¾ cup (about 5 ounces) chopped dried pineapple (both cut into pieces slightly larger than the cherries or cranberries) for the figs and apricots, and 1¾ cups raw, lightly toasted unsalted cashews (about 8 ounces) for the pecans.

Cocoa, Hazelnut, and Orange Panforte

Makes AN 8- or 9-inch panforte

Work quickly once you add the honey syrup to the other ingredients, as the mixture will begin to stiffen almost immediately.

Unsalted butter, for the pan

2 teaspoons plus ¼ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

½ cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground ginger

Salt and pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/3 cups chopped candied orange peel (8 ounces)

2½ cups hazelnuts, lightly toasted, skinned (wrap toasted nuts in a kitchen towel and rub to remove skins), and roughly chopped (about 12 ounces)

¾ cup honey

¾ cup granulated sugar

3 ounces bittersweet dark chocolate, melted

Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Set the oven rack in the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Generously butter an 8- or 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper, and butter the paper. In a small bowl, mix 2 teaspoons of the cocoa powder and ½ teaspoon cinnamon, dust the pan with the mixture, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining cocoa powder, remaining cinnamon, flour, ginger, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. Add the orange peel and work it into the mixture with your fingers, separating and coating the pieces. Add the hazelnuts, and toss to combine.

In a small saucepan over medium heat and stirring occasionally, bring the honey and granulated sugar to a strong simmer; continue to simmer, without stirring, until the mixture registers 240 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 5½ minutes. Add the honey-sugar mixture and the melted chocolate to the orange-nut mixture, and rapidly stir to combine well. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and, with wet hands or the back of a large spoon, press the batter into an even layer.

Bake until the panforte is firm and the surface is glossy, about 35 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes, remove the sides of the pan, and cool panforte completely before removing parchment paper. Dust the top, bottom, and sides of the panforte generously with confectioners’ sugar and rub it in with your fingers. Serve cut in thin wedges. Wrapped well and stored in an airtight container at room temperature, the panforte keeps for about 1 month. You can dust it with more confectioners’ sugar before serving.

Send comments or suggestions to Adam Ried at cooking@globe.com.