The Canadian Food Experience Project (December, 2013)
The Canadian Food Experience Project began June 7, 2013. As we, the participants, share our collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences, we hope to bring global clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. Please join us.
This month’s topic is: A Canadian Christmas: A Prairie Tradition
The Old and Much-Loved Gumdrop Fruitcake Recipe from my Friend’s Mom’s Landlady’s Mother in Yorkton, Saskatchewan
A big mug of milky tea, Christmas carols filling the air, and a thick slab of sweet, dense fruitcake – I am in Christmas heaven. The stresses and panic of holiday preparations melt away and leave me nothing but the gumdrop-fruity flavour of this treasured holiday treat. The colours and flavours and feelings of the whole Christmas season snuggle together in each moist and heavy, fruit-studded slice.
Ahhh, that’s what I was looking for. Exactly that. I take another sip of tea and look out the window at the snowy winter wonderland.
We all have our favourite holiday foods – the ones that instantly bring back sweet memories of Christmases past. For me that was my mom’s Pfeffernüsse, poppyseed Strudel and Honig Kuchen and my mother-in-law’s fruit-studded toasting bread and gingerbread cookies. But it was also this: my own family’s favourite fruitcake made from a recipe which came from my friend’s mom’s landlady’s mother in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Phew. That is some pedigree.
My children are crazy for this fruitcake, as were any guests that tasted it. This was unexpected, because as a child I hated fruitcake. First of all, I didn’t really care for raisins, and secondly fruitcakes were always heavily spiced and strong-tasting and their texture was weird. They made me shudder. (I suspect I wasn’t the only child that felt like that.) I thought fruitcakes were something just old people liked.
As I grew older, I did learn to tolerate fruitcake. I even had fruitcake as my wedding cake, just because that was the tradition then – I guess fruitcake was sturdy enough to handle the weight of the icing and the layers. Plus, a piece of plastic-wrapped fruitcake wedding cake was sturdy enough to handle being tucked under a single girl’s pillow and slept on all night so that she could dream of her future husband. Nobody really ever ate it those little wrapped squares of wedding cake.
I never came to love fruitcake, though, until my friend Judy convinced me to try her family’s recipe. The tide turned. I was hooked. My kids were just little, and they loved it too. They never knew that kids were supposed to shudder and gag when forced to eat fruitcake. To them, fruitcake was delicious (I suspect it had something to do with the gumdrops). It became part of our family’s Christmas tradition. They await it eagerly every year, taking big slabs in their school lunches, swiping hunks of it as it sits on the counter, and enjoying it when it’s offered for dessert or visitors.
This fruitcake recipe has stood the test of time. Judy got it from her mother, Frances Slater. It had been their beloved family fruitcake recipe, prepared by her mom and dad together every year, while Judy was growing up. Frances, in her early twenties, had moved from smalltown Canora, Saskatchewan to the city of Yorkton to work in the office at the local dairy. She got settled into a boardinghouse with two other young career girls. This would have been in the late 1940′s or early 1950′s. The fruitcake recipe came from their landlady, Mae Tunnicliffe, and all that is known about it is that it was an old recipe of Mae’s mother. I like to think it went back even a few generations before that.
The beauty of any family recipes is that you make them your own. I think this recipe has been tweaked a few times, with each person adding their special touch. Judy says it used to have candied pineapple in the recipe, and also that her family doubled the original amount of gumdrops. I cut down the sugar by a bit (the original recipe had 2¼ cups sugar), and added the vanilla, rum extract and the frozen orange juice concentrate.
I’m not sure what makes this cake so special. Maybe it’s the rich, simple batter scented with orange and brandy. Maybe it’s those bursts of chewy, yummy gumdrops. Or the lack of spices to muddle the flavours. Maybe it’s the long slow baking which turns the pale, cream-coloured batter into a caramelized, amber vehicle for the raisins, almonds and fruit.
Maybe it’s all of these things combined.
Kitchen Frau Notes: Fruitcake keeps forever (almost). You’ve probably heard the long-ago stories of fruitcakes packed in tins and sent off to students in boarding schools or young British ladies packing a tin of fruitcake in their trunks when they set off on their intrepid globetrotting stints. In fact, I’ve been hoarding one of last year’s fruitcakes, tucked into the back of the downstairs fridge, perfectly aged and fully flavoured. I pulled it out last week to enjoy while my new batch is aging and steeping in brandy in preparation for this season’s feasting. The year-old cake is divine – I don’t want to share it!
You can use rum instead of the brandy in the cakes, or just use orange juice to make them non-alcoholic. My kids never minded the alcohol – I don’t think they noticed it. The optional finishing step to wrap the cakes in cheesecloth and douse them in rum or brandy to age adds a complexity to their flavour and a smoothness to their texture, but is by no means necessary.
Baker’s gumdrops or baking ‘fruitlets’ are not always easy to find. I buy extra and freeze them for several years. They are sturdier than regular jujubes, but soften up as the cake ages.
*In the last few years I have adapted this cake to be gluten-free and it is just as delicious as the original! I’ve even made a corn-free version for one of our daughters, (quartering the recipe) using minced dried fruit soaked in brandy instead of the cherries and glacéed fruit, and Sun-Rype® Fruit Source Minibites instead of the gumdrops. It turned out very well, too. I have tried making a gluten-free batch using the Robin Hood® gluten-free flour, but found the slices a little more crumbly than when I used my own flour mixture in the recipe below.
Gumdrop Christmas Cake
Adapted from Frances Slater’s recipe, original source – Mae Tunnicliffe’s mother. When Frances’ daughter, Judy, first gave me the recipe, she swore me to secrecy, and I did keep it secret for many years but now, with her permission, I pass it on to you.
- 3 lbs (1.36kg) sultana raisins
- 1 lb (454gms) dried currants
- 1 lb 454gms) baker’s gumdrops (sometimes called ‘fruitlets’)
- 1 lb (454gms) red candied cherries, plus a few extras for garnish
- 1 lb (454gms) blanched slivered almonds, plus a few extras for garnish
- 8 oz (½lb/225gms) mixed glacéed fruit and peel
- 1 cup flour or brown rice flour (150gms)
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 lb (454gms) salted butter, room temperature
- 12 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup (120ml) orange juice or brandy (I use ¼ cup/60ml thawed frozen orange juice concentrate plus ¼ cup brandy or rum)
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon rum extract or brandy extract, optional
- 2¾ cups (385gms) regular flour (or 1 cup/140gms sorghum flour + 1 cup/140gms tapioca starch + ½ cup/75gms millet flour + ¼ cup/30gms ground golden flax seeds)
- cheesecloth and additional brandy or rum to soak the cakes (optional)
baking gumdrops are not always easy to find
Preheat the oven to 275°F.
Mix the fruit and nuts with the 1 cup flour or rice flour in a very large bowl – Frances always used a large roaster to mix it all up in. Use your hands to do this, making sure all the raisins are separated and the fruit is all coated with the flour. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and the sugar until they are light and fluffy. Add the eggs, salt, orange juice, brandy and flavourings. Beat until well incorporated. Mixture will look curdled, but that is okay.
Add the flour (or gluten-free mix of flours) and beat, slowly at first, then at medium speed, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the batter is well mixed.
Pour the batter over the floured fruit mix, scraping the bowl clean with a rubber spatula. Mix the batter with the fruit until it is all evenly combined.
The only way to do this efficiently is with clean hands, lifting and folding the ingredients in from the bottom and sides of the bowl or roaster and bringing them to the center. The mixture will be very stiff.
(Get yourself a young, muscled, teenage boy to help, if you can find one -the chance to nibble a few gumdrops is usually a good motivator.)
Grease and flour 3 loaf pans (4½ x 8½ inches/11.5cmx21.5cm) and 3 small loaf pans (3 x 6 inches/7.5cmx15cm). If they are non-stick pans, you can just grease them and omit the flouring. Mine slide out easily, but if your pans have lost the non-stick ability and you think the cakes may stick, you could line the pans with parchment paper as an extra precaution. You can also prepare 4 large loaf pans and 1 small one. Or 3 loaf pans if you have even larger sized ones.
Divide the mixture among the pans. If you feel like weighing the amounts to keep them equal, 2½lbs/1140gms will be the right amount for the large pans, and 1¼lbs/570gms will fit in the smaller pans. If your pans are larger than that, adjust the amounts accordingly.
With a stiff rubber or plastic spatula, or flat wooden paddle, press the dough down into the pans so it is solidly packed and there are no air spaces. Then shape the tops of the loaves so they are mounded slightly higher in the middle. Round and smooth the tops of the cakes. Make sure the pans are no more than ¾ full.
Cut the reserved candied cherries in half and press a few of them into the tops of the cakes to decorate them. Sprinkle with the reserved slivered almonds to garnish the cakes.
Bake the cakes, rotating them halfway through if your oven has hotspots, for 3 hours for the large cakes, and 2 hours for the small cakes. The time they take can vary greatly with your oven. Start checking them about ½ hour before the recommended time to see how they look. You want the colour to be a nice deep caramelly, nutty, colour, but not dark brown, or they will taste burnt. The cakes are actually done before the time is up, but the longer baking time is to produce the caramelization of the batter which really enhances the flavour. Raymond actually likes them better when they are quite dark – nutbrown.
In my oven, the cakes are finished about 15 minutes before the recommended time, but every oven is different and if you use different sized pans, the time will also be affected.
As the cakes bake, the melted butter will start bubbling up around the edges, but don’t worry about that because it will soak back into the cakes as they cool in the pans.
Leave the cakes to cool in the pans for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn them out onto racks to finish cooling.
Wrap the cooled cakes tightly with plastic wrap and store them in heavy plastic zip-top bags or airtight containers in a cool place. They are best if they can sit for a week or two before you eat them. The flavours will mellow and they slice more smoothly. The cakes can also be refrigerated or frozen for up to a year.
Optional Finish: When cool, cut several layers of cheesecloth to a size to fit around each cake. Wrap each cake, with the ends overlapping underneath. Place the cakes into a plastic storage container or zip-top bag.
Drizzle the top of each wrapped cake with 2 to 3 tablespoons of brandy or rum. No need to make sure it is all soaked in. The alcohol will slowly wick around the cake as it is stored and soak all the sides. Seal the containers or bags and store in a cool place for several weeks to several months before serving. If you’d like to douse them with more brandy or rum in a few weeks, go for it. If they are doused several times, they will keep much longer.
One year old and at its prime!
The cake I kept for year was aged like a fine wine – Christmas cheer any time!
Makes about 11¾ lbs fruitcake – 3 large and 3 small, or variations thereof. Enough for Christmas gifting (or sneaking it out of storage and enjoying a big slab with a cup of tea any time in the coming year).
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