Christmas Fruitcake, like this rich, delicious homemade one by Miss Linda Ebanks, is a
cherished holiday tradition in Cayman!
Right now we’re feeling giddy over the arrival of Fruitcake Season. That’s right: contrary to what people overseas may think about our tropical climate, Cayman has several distinct seasons: mango, conch, lobster, wahoo –and perhaps the most anticipated of all, Fruitcake.
Waiting for those rich dark cakes to appear stirs up as much excitement as watching the first June mangos dangle within reach in a neighbor’s yard. That first mouthful of yuletide cake, redolent with red wine or rum brings a sigh of pleasure. Homemade Fruitcake fumes are our Christmas perfume, seducing us into sneaking bites whenever we can--even before breakfast.
Most food historians agree that the roots of fruitcake as we know it today are in 13th century England, after century explorers returned from the Orient and Mediterranean with exotic spices, nuts and preserved fruits.
Light yeast breads studded with imported dried fruits were probably the ancient predecessor of fruitcake. Plum pudding, which evolved into West Indian Christmas cake, appeared later, around the early 15th century. But that medieval recipe had nothing to do with Christmas—and considering the ingredients, you’d quickly ban it from your holiday table.
The original dish was a heavy, savory starter called “plum pottage” (plum originally meant prune, but later referred to any dried fruits) made primarily from chopped beef or mutton, onions and root vegetables—and very few dried fruits. It wasn’t until the late 16th century that this dish was transformed from savory to sweet: suet replaced meat and a variety of exotic dried fruits, like raisins and prunes, replaced vegetables. But as late as the 18th century, it was still considered a first course and not dessert. The English Christmas pudding recipe we know appeared sometime in the 1800’s.
Variations of that old spirited holiday recipe have been a Christmas tradition throughout the English-speaking Caribbean and Bermuda for at least a century and country (and sometimes, each island) has its own cherished recipes. All of these are adaptations—I say improvements --of 19th century English recipes for steamed plum puddings, carried across the Atlantic to West Indian great houses.
In Guyana, Trinidad and Barbados, the confection is called Black Cake (or great cake) and burnt sugar syrup is the secret ingredient. Jamaicans call theirs Christmas cake or Christmas pudding, depending on whether it’s baked or steamed, often add browning to the recipe, and favor a combination of rum and port wine or brandy.
Here in Cayman, we’re just as passionate about our Fruitcake. Veteran cake bakers keep a pail or crock of boozy-soaked fruits going year-round, replacing the stock as used, to insure there is always a properly aged starter in case someone calls for a wedding cake—or has a Fruitcake craving out of season. Now, there are strong opinions about which recipe is best. Should you make it with J. Wray & Nephew Cake Wine, rum or brandy?
Or all of these?
Should you serve it with rich hard sauce or in simple, unadorned slices?
We do agree on one thing: we can’t get enough of it!
This week, I’d like to give thanks for those Caymanian bakers who have kept this special Christmas tradition alive and offer special appreciation to Mrs. Olga Adam of South Sound in Grand Cayman.
For more than 20 years, Mrs. Adam baked several hundred of her delicious dense, rich fruitcakes each Christmas season. She began soaking her fruits by October, so they would be ready and baked her cake batter in batches of 27--which required an enormous amount of batter.
“I used a wooden paddle my husband Tommy made and mixed the batter by hand in a big metal container I stored away just for this purpose. I sold about half of my cakes, hoping just to break even and cover the cost of the ingredients, and gave the rest to family and friends,” Mrs. Adam said.
“But eventually, my annual baking left me too exhausted to enjoy the family Christmas gathering, and that’s when my children convinced me it was time to give up the tradition.”
Although at 83, Mrs. Adam no longer bakes her dark Christmas fruitcakes, she graciously shared the original family recipe—and an easier recipe she developed later. Hurricane Ivan severely damaged the family home on Melmac Avenue and destroyed many of her handwritten recipes and personal papers, but this one survived. As you read her recipe, remember that Mrs. Adam accomplished this feat in her small home kitchen with a single oven and the help of her husband Tommy—not in a modern commercial bakery!
Mrs Olga Adam’s Old Time Christmas Fruitcake
You really should start preparing the fruit for this recipe in October, and the instructions are below. But if you’re late, you can do it a few weeks before baking. Like many old time Cayman recipes, this one specifically calls for Parkay –the brand name that was the local favorite. This recipe makes 27 small (2-1/4 pounds each) fruitcakes, using about 3 cups batter for each. Be sure to start soaking your fruits by October 1 for best flavor.
6 pounds whole pitted prunes
½ pound dark brown sugar (for stewing prunes)
9 pounds raisins
3 pounds whole pitted dates
2 bottles Rich Ruby wine (J. Wray & Nephew Cake wine) 26 ounces each
1 pound glace cherries, cut in half
1-1/2 pounds pecans, chopped
6 pounds candied mixed peel
6 pounds Parkay margarine
5 pounds light brown Dixie Crystals sugar
1 pound dark brown Dixie Crystals sugar
5 pounds self rising flour (20 cups)
1 pound bread crumbs –homemade is best (* a 1 pound loaf of white bread will make about 6 cups dry crumbs.)
6 dozen eggs
3 tins ground allspice (1-1/2 ounces each)
2 – 16 ounce (1 pint) bottles Dark Karo Syrup
To prepare the soaked fruits: Do not soak the cherries, mixed peel or nuts! Combine pitted prunes, ½ pound brown sugar and 16 cups hot water in large stock pot and bring to a boil. Stir well, cover pot, reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Line a very large container with a tight cover with a white plastic garbage bag liner, (it must be plastic or glass, not metal –I used scrubbed and cleaned plastic salt beef pails which I kept for this purpose only.) Add the prunes with remaining stewing juice, dates and raisins. Pour the wine over the fruits and then press all air out of the garbage bag and tie as tightly as possible. Let fruit age for at least three weeks.
You will probably have to make the cakes in six batches, as I did, because there isn’t a mixing bowl large enough! My original recipe called for mixing together the two types of brown sugar in a large bowl, using a large fork. Then cream 1 pound of Parkay with 1 pound of mixed brown sugar at a time, then add 12 eggs, one at time, mixing well after each addition. I poured this into the very large container I used to make the entire batch of cakes and repeated the process until those ingredients were finished-- and then proceeded to add the remaining ingredients. I stirred all that batter all by hand with a large wooden paddle.
When ready to bake, combine the soaked fruits, cherries, pecans and mixed peel in a very large container just before mixing the batter and stir well.
Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Grease bottom and sides of round 8 inch pans and line with brown paper, then waxed paper. In a large mixing bowl, cream together margarine and sugar until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the fruit, nuts, mixed fruit, cherry and spices. Stir in breadcrumbs and flour alternately with Karo syrup—about half the amounts at a time. Mix well.
Divide batter among pans, using about 3 cups each and filling pans up no more than one inch from the top. Bake at 275 degrees for an hour, then reduce heat to 225 degrees and bake another 2 to 2-1/2 hours, until cake is done. Test cake by inserting wooden pick into center. If it comes out with only a few crumbs clinging to it, cake is done. Serve with hard sauce.
You can also divide the cake ingredients into 6 portions as follows—or use this recipe for a smaller batch, and follow the same directions.
1 pound Parkay
1 pound mixed brown sugar
1 dozen eggs
1/6 of the fruit nut mixture
3-1/3 cups flour
1 cup bread crumbs
1/3 bottle Dark Karo Syrup (about 2/3 cup)
1 pound butter
2 pounds confectioner’s sugar, sifted
2 cups Harvey’s Bristol Cream or other good quality sweet sherry.
Cream butter and sugar until light, then gradually beat in Bristol Cream until fluffy. You can use less sherry or substitute dark rum if you prefer. This makes about 8 cups of hard sauce. Store hard sauce covered, in refrigerator until about 2 hours before serving: it should be served at room temperature.
Cayman Dark Christmas Cake---Easy Method
“I wish I had discovered this recipe years ago,” Miss Olga said. “It is delicious and so easy to make! The year after my family insisted I stop baking my annual Christmas cakes they suddenly realized-- three weeks before Christmas --that this meant none for them either! They said it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without my cake.
I thought, “now what am I going to do? It’s too late to do the fruits! Well, I happened to be reading a copy of Good Housekeeping and saw a recipe for dark fruitcake that sounded appealing --and simple. As I always did with new recipes, I followed the directions exactly but it was too dry. So I did a little of this and a little of that, and came up with my own version that saved the day and family had their Christmas Cake after all. It’s delicious and easy and the biggest surprise: you don’t use any eggs.”
1-12 ounce package pitted prunes, cut in half
1 cup seedless raisins
1 cup Parkay margarine
1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar
½ cup dark Karo syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 cups water
1 cup Borden’s Mincemeat with brandy and rum
Combine all ingredients except mincemeat in a 4-5 quart saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and cool completely. Place cooled fruit mixture in large mixing bowl and stir in the mincemeat and blend well. Now stir in:
½ cup J. Wray & Nephew Cake wine
1 cup chopped pecans
1-3/4 pounds mixed peel
¼ pound glace cherries
Mix well, and then gently stir in the following, just until blended:
4 cups self rising flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease a 10-inch tube pan and a round 8-inch cake pan ( or 4 round 8 inch pans) and line bottoms of pans with wax paper, then grease the wax paper. Spoon batter into prepared pans so they are about two-thirds full. Baking time will depend on size of pans: bake the large cake at 325 for 1-1/2 hours or until toothpick inserted in center of fruitcake comes out clean. Bake smaller cakes for about 55 minutes to an hour, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool cakes completely in pan on wire rack.
Remove from pan and carefully peel off wax paper. Wrap fruitcakes tightly in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator. For stronger spirits flavor, open the wrap and pour rum, sherry or wine over cakes each week as they age, which ideally should be for a month. Serve slices of cake at room temperature with hard sauce.