FRUIT CAKE: TAKING ADVICE FROM A 19TH CENTURY HOME BAKER

At about this time every year, Christmas cake recipes begin to appear in home and lifestyle magazines, baking blogs and TV cooking programs. This presents Australian home bakers with somewhat of a dilemma. So much of the custom and practice shared about a ‘good’ fruitcake has been informed by English traditions, and recipes developed with a white Christmas climate in mind. Any bakers who have grown up with an Australian summer knows that excessive humidity, lots of rain and long hot days do not a good fruit cake make!

Although classic fruit cake recipes can vary greatly, they are usually time consuming and expensive to prepare. Fruit needs to be chopped, soaked, and in some circumstances, boiled. Fruit cakes need to deepen in flavour and mature over time. They need to be tucked in, in bedding of calico and muslin. They don’t like direct sunlight. They don’t like air. Some fruit cakes insist on being dressed in undergarments of marzipan and then cloaked in fondant in order for them to look their best. The preparation time alone can span at least three days. Cooking time – several hours. And the ingredients are expensive – $40 of glace fruit, $10 of dried fruit, half a bottle of good rum. Last festive season at our house, the Christmas cake consumed more hard liquor than me.

This year, my search for a fruit cake recipe has been guided by two goals – economy and ease. While refrigerators, preservatives, zip lock bags and an ever expanding range of food storage options all claim to improve the shelf life of food – none of this can ultimately advance the cause of the fruitcake. Refrigeration and freezing fruit cake leads to crystallization. And in a warm climate, tupperware simply makes fruit cake sweat. The realisation that technological advancement is not necessarily the answer to the fruit cake conundrum led littlebaking to undertake a little historical research to explore how previous generations of Australian homebakers faced, and resolved, the fruitcake challenge.

The following recipe represents the culmination of our research and is therefore not authored by littlebaking. At the National Library (Canberra ) we found a copy of ‘Bark Hut Recipes and History’ – a family cook book, passed from mother (Martha Pearse) to daughter (Sarah Pearse) and compiled over a 75 period as they lived and survived on the early frontier of regional Victoria, Australia. The recipe is one of the most economical I’ve seen (no nuts, no alcohol). Martha Pearse herself claims “it will keep a year”.

Like the historical cooking project, the recipe was made using the historical cooking techniques that would have been used at the time (ie wooden spoon, wire whisk, hard labour and elbow grease). Though there is no getting around the fact that a modern oven is very different to a bark hut wood fired stove! http://www.historicalcookingproject.com/#uds-search-results. We wrapped in brown paper, and string, and have left in a cool dark place to await the results on Christmas day.

Ingredients
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup molasses
1 cup milk
4 eggs (separated)
4 cups white flour
2 teaspoon bi carbonate of soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg, grated
1 teaspoon cloves
5 & a half cups raisins (chopped)
1 teaspoon cloves
Method
Mix butter and sugar to a smooth cream, add molasses and milk. Mix. Separate eggs. Add egg yolks to the butter and sugar. Put egg whites aside, as they will be beaten to stiff peaks later.
In a separate bowl, mix dried fruit with flour, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg until the fruit is completely coated.
Add the flour/fruit mix to the egg/butter mix and beat.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Add the egg whites to the cake batter as the last stage of the mix.
Bake at 160C for approx. 2 hours. Check with a skewer in the centre of the cake to ensure it comes out clean.
Additional notes on preparation: white sugar was used in order to balance the very dark texture of the molasses. The original recipe called for citron, and this was omitted. We reduced the cooking time from the recommended 4 hours to 2 hours, and this seemed to work well. When the egg yolks are added to the creamed butter/sugar/milk/molasses – the mixture separates dramatically. Persist with the mix, it will stabilise quickly after inclusion of the flour. To reduce cost even further, raisins were replaced with sultanas.
fruit cake pic 4fruit cake pic 2fruitcake pic 1

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