Further Adventures in Historical Baking: Fruitcake

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In the States, fruitcake is a seasonal joke, a punchline. I remember it on a children’s show I watched from my youth. But when I got older, I discovered that my mother actually enjoys fruitcake, so when I saw a recipe in my beloved Nigella Lawson cookbook, I started stirring up a Christmas cake the month before Christmas each year to share with her. I cared for it, feeding it brandy every week, and finding the perfect tin to match the shape and size of cake I made that year, so that it wouldn’t dry out or go bad. And then I would give my mother the cake at Christmas so she could eat it in very thin slices or share it with guests.

But I gradually fell out of the habit of my own little stir-up Sunday, and kept forgetting to make my fruitcake. This year, I had every intention of starting the tradition again, especially after finding myself fortuitously at an open liquor store the Sunday after Thanksgiving. But, alas, things kept coming up and I never made it before Christmas. But I used my holiday to stir up a fruitcake of sorts. Rather than making one that required feeding and maturing, I made one based on the historical recipe used on English Heritage’s “The Victorian Way” series from their inimitable Mrs. Crocombe, based on a recipe from Queen Victoria’s own cook.

Of course, I made a few changes. In particular, a move that some may label utter blasphemy, I did not top my cake with marzipan or royal icing, as I know my mother dislikes both of those things. I also made it in a loaf pan, and instead of soaking it in brandy as I usually do, I brushed on a modest amount of a mixture of orange syrup and brandy. Oh, and I candied my own peel this year.

I highly recommend you candy your own peel. Other than peeling an orange in more-or-less whole pieces, it’s hardly any work at all. And not only is the candied peel delicious, but you are left with a quantity of delicious orange syrup that you can use in other things (perhaps in a tea cocktail). The one piece of advice I would have is to make sure you cut the peel into thin strips before you candy it. I candied mine in larger pieces and found that not only did it have to cook for longer to go translucent, but it was also much more difficult to cut after candying. To candy your own peel, simple peel three washed,  thick-rinded oranges, like navels, slice the peel into strips, and boil them in a syrup made of sugar and water. I used a rich simple syrup of one part water to two parts sugar. Boil until the white part of the rind looks translucent, and then remove from the syrup and dry on a rack overnight (or longer, if you don’t worry about curious spouses or cat hair). I didn’t sugar my peel afterwards as it seemed foolish given that the sugaring would soak off in the brandy.

The other change I made was to soak my cut up dried fruit in brandy for… well, a few weeks. I had put together the fruit mixture right after candying my peel and got it soaking, intending to make the cake in a day or two, but it ended up sitting in the refrigerator for a while. I eventually opened it up to see if it had molded or smelled off, but as it just smelled of brandy and fruit, I decided it was still safe for use, and made the cake. The result is a very deep brandy flavor throughout the cake. I also used no raisins, as neither I nor my mother like them, and instead added chopped dried apricots and chopped prunes. I also used dark brown sugar in place of some of the caster sugar, and I cut the recipe in quarters to perfectly fit a standard 9″x5″ loaf pan, which was lined thoroughly with parchment. It took about two hours to bake through, until the temperature reached 190F inside and a skewer came out clean. I cooled it completely, brushed it with syrup and brandy, and wrapped it tightly in parchment and two layers of plastic, as I don’t have a tin to fit it.

I opened it up the other morning when I was hungry for a little something with my tea, and it is absolutely perfect. A little crumbly because the immense amount of fruit interferes with the structural integrity of the cake, but the flavor is incredible. Even Mr. Tweed enjoyed it, and he generally dislikes cherries. I have yet to share it with my mother, but I think I may have to have her over to tea soon so she can try some before I finish it myself.

How to Buy a Gift for a Tea Lover

It’s a major gift-giving season, so I thought I’d write a post about gifts for tea lovers. Note that this isn’t a “gift guide” or a “buyer’s guide” of specific things that I think you should buy. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, along with some recommendations of good companies from which to buy things, check out Nazanin’s gift guide on Tea Thoughts. But one thing that I think doesn’t get addressed nearly often enough in “gift guides” is the idea that gift-giving is about choosing a gift, not buying a gift. Choosing a gift for someone requires a set of skills that is tricky for some people (including some people I dearly love), so I thought that going through my gift-choice thought process might be helpful. I’m focusing on tea because I know a little bit about being a tea lover, and in particular, I know a little bit about being a very particular person to shop for sometimes (although I appreciate all thoughtful gifts).

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The first thing you need to choose a gift is a certain knowledge about how a person likes their tea. I think this is more important than what kind of teas they like because someone who loves tea can often enjoy new flavors, and in fact would rather have new flavors than the same old thing all the time, but how a person makes and enjoys their tea will inform a lot about what kinds of teas you’re looking for. Does your recipient like their tea British-style in a cup and saucer with milk, sugar, and/or lemon? Or do they prefer to brew in an Asian style, such as gongfu or grandpa-style? Or are they a matcha fanatic? You wouldn’t get the same gift for all three of these, even though they could all be called “tea lovers.”

It is also important to think about what kind of brewing they are comfortable with. A person who usually puts a tea bag in a mug of water will probably not have the equipment to get the most out of gyokuro, just as a person who brews all of their tea gongfu style probably won’t be able to appreciate a CTC Assam, since it often does poorly in gongfucha. Remember that a gift is first and foremost meant to enrich the life of the person receiving it, and giving them something they can’t or won’t use isn’t terribly enriching, even if it’s a very nice thing. So the person who drinks mostly teabag tea might like a selection of bagged teas from a company that takes care to use high-quality tea. And the person who drinks everything gongfu style will prefer a loose-leaf tea, probably from China or Korea.

The next thing to think about is whether or not you know that the person is interested in trying a new method. My first gaiwan was a gift from my mother because she knew I was interested in expanding my knowledge of tea brewing methods. Similarly, I bought a friend a matcha set because she expressed an interest in matcha. If you have that friend that drinks tea from a tea bag every day, but has expressed that they wished they could try something better and they just don’t know where to start, it might be appropriate to get them a simple infuser and some loose leaf tea. Or the person who drinks loose leaf and has expressed an interest in different tea cultures might appreciate being gifted teaware and tea that are associated with those cultures. I think the trick here is to know if you will need to get them the tools as well as the tea, since getting one without the other wouldn’t be very helpful.

In my tea primer, I go through different “levels” of tea (so called because they follow my own personal progression of tea practice, not because some practices are inherently superior than others) and what tools and teas might be appropriate for people at different points in their tea journey, so taking a look at that might be helpful in deciding what kind of tools you might want to get. Plus, there is something to be said for getting something that someone wants (and people rarely keep things like this a very private secret, if you listen), but thinks is too silly to buy for themself. One of my favorite recent tea gifts was a set of Turkish tea cups and tea from Rize that I got from two friends. I would never have thought to get it for myself, but I’m always interested in learning about new tea cultures, so it was like getting a tea set, tea, and a new research rabbit hole to dive down all in one!

At this point, it’s time to think about what kind of teas your recipient likes. It helps to know dislikes more than likes, since dislikes are often non-negotiable, but likes can evolve. For example, I wouldn’t get my mother a green tea because she generally dislikes green teas, but just because I know Earl Grey is her favorite doesn’t mean that I would only ever buy her Earl Grey. If you don’t have a strong knowledge of different styles of tea, it might help to see if there is a tea shop near you where the staff might be able to discuss similarities among different types of teas. For example, if your friend likes green tea, they might also enjoy a less-oxidized oolong, or if they love black teas, a roasted oolong might be an interesting new thing for them to try.

And don’t forget that tea lovers love teaware! Never underestimate the allure of even a very inexpensive tea cup, either from a Chinese gift shop or a thrift store with vintage finds. Some of my favorite teacups in my collection were purchased for under $5 from a thrift shop. I wish everyone a joyful holiday season and hope this helps take some of the stress out of gift shopping!

(Also, I know this isn’t a buyer’s guide, but if you’re looking for a beautiful gift for someone who enjoys teas from the Wuyi region of China, the photo above is how my recent purchase from Old Ways Tea came packaged and I think any tea-lover would be tickled by opening such a pretty box!)

Yuletide Celebrations

Now that winter and Christmas are officially upon us, I thought I’d muse a little bit about my winter holiday. While I was raise Christian and celebrate Christmas with my family, I’ve always maintained a slightly more pagan point of view, and to my mind Yule is one of my favorite holidays to celebrate. Now, I know the official solstice passed a few days ago, although it was so gloomy I hardly noted the difference between light and dark during the longest night. But I like to wrap my solstice celebration into my Christmas festivities with my family. We don’t attend church, but we indulge in the trappings of the holiday that largely derive from the pagan festivals anyway.

Oh, my interest in the winter solstice predates any official interest in pagan beliefs. As a runner, I celebrated the return of the sun, when in a few weeks it might be light enough in the morning to safely run in the local, un-lit parks. Nowadays, Yule marks the time when I can see the sun on the horizon earlier in the morning. Over the next couple of months I will go from “getting up at night,” as the old poem goes, to finding more and more dawn light coming in my window when I need to rise.

So as I rise on this holiday to celebrate around a tree and consider symbols of the Christmas holiday, my thoughts hearken back to an older practice, the practice of noting this darkest day and longest night not with fear of the dark, but with the hope of the return of the sun. Blessed Yule and happy holiday season to all!