Fruitcakes have a bad reputation because many people find them dry, tasteless and chock full of artificially colored and flavored “fruit” ingredients.   I was  among the anti-fruitcake group, until my beloved introduced me to his recipe,  that originated from Juanita Neilands, the wife of his doctoral adviser, the biochemist Joe Neilands at UC Berkeley.   They’re completely natural, which is consistent with their popularity in the hippie era of the San Francisco Bay area.   Each year Juanita and friends would bake a big bunch of these incredible cakes and distribute them to each of Joe’s lab members.

The remarkable man Joe Neilands passed away a little over a year ago at age 87.  He was an outstanding scientist and political activist, a true free-spirit.   You can read about him here.   In our current lab we still continue the research that he began  decades ago, and in our kitchen we still bake this favorite fruitcake, “an old Southern family recipe”.

(from Juanita Neilands, an old Southern family recipe)

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup flour
4 eggs
1 T vanilla
1/2 cup white grape juice
1 t baking powder
1 lb pitted, chopped dates (unsugared)
(or 1/2 lb dates + 1/2 lb mixed dried fruits of your choice)
1/2 lb dried apricots, chopped
1 lb pecans, chopped
3/4 lb walnuts, chopped (about 3 cups)
optional:  Tawny Port wine

Beat the eggs and sugar together.  If you can only find chopped dates that are coated with sugar, then reduce the sugar by 2 T. Mix in the flour and baking powder, then add vanilla and grape juice.  Dust the dates and apricots with flour, add them to the batter, then add the chopped nuts.    The batter will seem very dry, do not worry about it.

Prepare six mini-loaf pans by greasing them with butter.  Line with 2 layers of parchment paper, greasing each layer.   Spoon the batter into each pan, and decorate the cakes with half walnuts or pecans on top.

Bake at 350F for 50 minutes to 1 hour, and remove the loaves from pans as soon as you can touch the cake.  Remove the parchment paper, and put cakes on a rack over a pan.  Pour Tawny port (or brandy or bourbon), about 2 T each,  over the fruitcakes and and allow them to cool.  Add more Port later, if you desire, and wrap for storage.   Enjoy the cake right away,  or store for several months, if Port wine (or brandy) is added.

Happy Holidays!

to print the recipe, click here

This post will be my first submission to “Bread Baking Day”, this month’s theme is “Baking Under the Tree

for step by step photos and comments, read on….

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Maybe some cooks are fearless.  They open any cookbook, pick any recipe, open their cupboards, and make it:  no trauma, no drama.  But, I am not such a cook.  I notice some improvement over the years:   in the past I wouldn’t even attempt  a risotto or a souffle.   But I’m still severely “cake-challenged.”    Nothing infuses me with fear more than the phrase:  “cream the butter and sugar“.    Ever since a painful fiasco with a strawberry genoise “shoe” cake, that I regrettably served at a party back in 2003, I’ve successfully avoided recipes that instruct to beat the butter and sugar into the elusive “creamy” stage.   Why would I even bother?

Fate plays strange tricks, though.

A couple of weeks ago I learned about an internet event – a Bake Along – organized by Dan Lepard (my bread baker guru).  Folks from all over the world connected to “The Guardian” website at 3pm London time, and waited for Dan’s instructions to bake  a  traditional Dundee Cake together.   He posted the ingredients the day before, and the bakers logged in for a virtual group meeting – even a lady from Australia who awakened at 2am to join the party!

Where  I live, the baking started at 9:00 am.  Well,  to be precise it was 9:03 am…. Can you tell that I was ready for it?

I measured the ingredients, prepared the pan and waited for Dan’s first instructions, that  arrived like a  hydrogen bomb overhead:  mix the sugar with the butter and beat until creamy.    WHAAAT?   I re-read it, hoping for a misunderstanding on my part.   Nope.

I looked at my butter, it was not even “softened” (whatever that might be).    I considered quickly logging out, explaining that a tornado was headed my way, but….  in November?  Who would believe me?  Then, a fellow baker, probably hyperventilating almost as much as me, related that his butter was still cold from the fridge, what was he supposed to do?   “Don’t worry,  Dan responded,  ” heat it until about 1/3  melts, and proceed.”

Maybe that’s why his last tip before we began was…

“Stay calm and relaxed. We’re going to have the best time, ok?”

Yeah, right!  Calm and relaxed I was not.  Still, I took a deep breath, microwaved it slightly, added the whole pitiful blob to the bowl of my mixer, dumped the sugar on top, and…… beat it.  To my amazement,   IT WORKED!!!

I suddenly realized that I hadn’t  done it correctly before.  Maybe my butter was too cold or  my sugar too coarse (this time I used superfine), but  on this occasion it worked!

Thrilled, I moved on, adding the eggs, the  marmalade, the dried fruits…

This  cake baked in two stages:  first a partial bake covered with foil to generate steam,  and then after removing the foil, nuts were added on top and the baking resumed, uncovered, for the remaining  time.   I couldn’t find whole blanched almonds to cover the fruitcake, so I used macadamia nuts instead.  My cake wasn’t as beautiful as those with the nicely distributed almonds, but it tasted great!

Beautiful cake or not, having survived the “cream the butter with sugar” battle, I was happy….

Maybe for the most part I was not calm and relaxed, but… I did have the best time that Sunday!

You can see the work of all my virtual friends by following the pictorial show organized by Dan and his crew in London, by clicking here

Verdict: A wonderful fruitcake indeed!  I was planning to eat a few slices and then add Port wine to some of it, wrap and store.  But there were only crumbs left next day…  Next time I will make it in small loaf pans, and save a couple to taste later.

get the recipe after the jump, or by visiting Dan Lepard’s blog
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