Fruitcake For Foodies: It Exists Thanks To Laurie Colwin

[This is kind of a #tbt kind of post. I last made this cake TEN YEARS ago. Yikes.]

Apparently it is that time of year that everyone loves to make fun of fruitcake. Here’s my take: commercially-made fruitcakes can and often do suffer from all the problems that all commercially-made foodstuffs do, namely cheap ingredients and way too much sugar.

Take things to the next level, by making your own, OR by using a variant far more friendly to adults who like things a little tipsy, and now you’re talking. This Jamaican Black Cake is a long-running experiment by the awesome food writer Laurie Colwin, who wrote about it in her book, “Home Cooking“. She died in 1992, but remains an influence for many cooks and writers alike. Countless foodies and food blogs have delved into their own attempts over the years, like thekitchn, Saveur, and more. There was a “bake-along“. And over at the New York Times they simply featured a nice homage to Laurie and mentioned the cake.

I made this cake – cakes, actually – 10 years ago back when I actually baked, and it was received by family and friends.

Did they like it? Well, basically… it’s hard to say. This kind of an onslaught of deep flavor with bitter tones is a food best enjoyed by folks described as “adventurous eaters”. That, I am. That, many of my relatives were not. They sampled gamely and might have kind of liked it, but then went right back to the marshmallow fluff fudge.

I still consider it a success. Let me know if you make it (or ever have) and how it turned out. I should make it again because dang was it intense. And I LOVE intense.

Jamaican Black Cake (aka Fruity-Booze Cake): adapted from Laurie Colwin

Here is my modified recipe, with a warning – the whole process takes 3 distinct steps, the first of which must be started at least 2 weeks ahead of time.

STEP 1 (10 minutes):
Take 2-3lbs of dried fruits, any mixture you’d like of raisins – dates – figs – prunes – candied/glazed items – candied citrus peel. Steep them in a mixture of heavy & fruity boozes such as port, rum, bourbon, et cetera in a LARGE GLASS container. Plastic may stain, metal may do bad things. My vat contained rum and port (what I had on hand). Allow this to steep for a minimum of several weeks, up to a year or more. For future cakes, go ahead and double the amounts and start your batch for next year now!

STEP 2 (2 hours, give or take): can be started up to a week before you make the cake(s).

Making BLACK SUGAR is an amazing process in patience and home chemistry. Take 2 cups of brown sugar and put it in a heavy bottomed pan. Melt this over low-med heat. For the longest time it will seem like nothing is happening except that the grainy-ness of the brown sugar gets a little moist. DO NOT add water. Just keep stirring it so the bottom doesn’t burn, and after about 30 minutes Magical Transformation #1 will occur – the whole mass will liquefy at the same time. Once it does that you will have a caramel tan colored goo. Keep stiring and watching that until it gets darker….. and darker…. and darker….

If you walk away for a few minutes, you might come back to a fascinating sight:
Magical Transformation #2

Magical Transformation #2

Magical Transformation #2

…black lava-like bubbles in your tan sludge. Stir them back in and keep things going. Eventually the mixture will get VERY dark, almost black:

Almost black sugar goo.

Almost black sugar goo.

….and your kitchen will smell like, well, burnt sugar. Its not unpleasant, especially if you like complex verging on bitter flavors (coffee, for example). Keep letting it darken as long as you dare. When it is a hair’s breadth away from being officially burnt, heat up 1 cup of water to boiling, remove the pan from the heat, and pour the water in. Congratulations, you have just made black syrup. Allow it to cool, then store in glass in the fridge until you are ready for

STEP 3 (the cake(s); 2 hours including baking time):

1 cup Packed brown sugar
1/2 lb butter (salted), room temp
6 eggs
2 cups cake flour
2t baking powder
1t each of nutmeg and cinnamon
1/2t each of cloves and cardamom

Sift the flour with the baking powder and spices in a medium bowl. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, then beat in the eggs one by one. Fold in the soused fruits, and half to all of the black syrup (until batter is as dark as you want it to be). Then fold in the flour mix, and pour into 2 well-lubed AND parchment-lined cake pans, or small loaf pans (note the brown color of mine; I could have added more of the black syrup):

Black cake batter in little pans

Bake about 90+ minutes at 325, until a toothpick comes out moist – not wet, but not totally clean, as the cake should be very moist. When they come out of the oven sprinkle the tops with dark rum, allow to cool, and then keep in an airtight container (or double layer of foil, or plastic, etc) until ready for consumption or gifting. Every few days, drizzle with more rum if they look a little dry. Cakes will keep at least a month and are better a few weeks after baking, though I’ve heard its tradition to keep one of the batch until next year (whoa).

Whew. Now, get cracking on your soused fruits for next year! 🙂

Advertisements

Cage Fight: KFC’s Double Down vs. Sanity

Knock, knock! Who’s there? Nutritionists and foodies having apoplectic meltdowns!

Oh, yes, it happened. The “limited run” legendary whipping-boy sandwich from KFC called the Double Down is back after a multi-year hiatus, to the chagrin and delight of the Internets.

When first unleashed in 2010 the Double Down was the scorn of nutritionists and the bane of foodies alike – a strange alliance given that the two camps are often at odds over concepts they believe cannot exist together like “health” and “deliciousness”. The vitriol from both was rather frothy.

But perhaps in the context of our “eat less evil foods” culture, popularized by sites like Eat This, Not That and YumSugar, I can look at the Double Down within my own paradigm – that of valuing foods that are less processed as the better choice. (Note, my book proposal – no joke – to Rodale for “Eat This, Not That: Paleo” is yet unanswered….)

What does the Double Down have going for it? Let’s take a look:

  1. Low-carb option for those on the Atkins or other ketogenic diet (though not rock-bottom due to likely seasonings in the meat, for a grand total of 11 carbs vs. 35 carbs in a regular KFC fried chicken sandwich)
  2. Made from three sort-of straightfoward ingredients (if you get the grilled chicken option instead of fried and skip the sauce): chicken, cheese, bacon. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell you what kinds of awful go into making sandwich buns at fast food joints (like dough conditioners also used in yoga mats).
  3. It’s a chicken cordon bleu for $5.49. Yay.

Um, that’s about it.

How about the Double Down-sides? I can come up with a few:

  1. The cheese. Likely a frankenish creation that has mere molecules of dairy as an ingredient in order for it to use the word “cheese” in its description. Also source of part of the low-carber’s unwanted carbohydrate grams.
  2. The chicken. I won’t even go into the horrors of life as a battery chicken; here I will only talk about nutrition. There ain’t much that resembles what a real chicken should taste like after you’ve raised the birds on soy and antibiotics, injected the meat with saline, and then slathered it in a crusty spice layer (which includes wheat, according to KFC’s website). I’ll stop there.
  3. It’s a chicken cordon bleu for $5.49. Ick.

Interestingly, even with a bit of nutrition education, I (just like the rare blogger back in 2010 who said Double Downs were not the most evil thing they could imagine) would put the Double Down far ahead of many, many things recommended by the likes of Eat This, Not That and their ilk. I do give some kudos to that series’ desire to allow folks to make incremental changes from where they are now in their habit. However, I think their “evil” list is misguided, namely in their rote avoidance of saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol.

So where does this leave us? My dude and I (mostly him, OK) tested out a real Double Down, for science. It was breaded and weird. It was not at all like the “extra tasty crispy” stuff you expect from KFC. The cheese didn’t have time to melt, the sauce was unnecessary if they’d only use bacon with flavor…. but…. it didn’t make us throw up in our mouths. So, good job, KFC?

Watch a Man At His First Yoga Class to Understand Success

They are a most curious specimen, those first-time dudes at yoga class. They often come at the behest of a friend or perhaps out of curiosity.

yoga-mat-man

They seem willing to give it a go and be amused by the whole thing if that’s what is needed for them to participate. Maybe they pretend they are a super hero to get them in the mood.

yoga spidey

Poses are undertaken with an element of skepticism and, if they don’t work well, an uninstructed tweak might be tried. This results in poses that, to the trained yogi’s eye, are somewhat . . . interesting. This ain’t no Warrior I:

a-lunge-not-warrior

Then, if asked to get into a pose that is actually a bit painful – or just uncomfortable – and they’re asked to hold it, hold it, hold it – they might not. If they’re really really tired and need a break, they will take one. They are willing to abandon what is not working.

They are willing to abandon what is not working.

Persistence. Tenacity. Follow-through. All perfectly valid practices in many parts of our lives and projects we undertake. However, that doggedness can also be a huge roadblock or time-waster if we don’t recognize the other side and know when to move on. If you find yourself in one of those ruts, unable to let go of a seriously draining project or something as simple as that bag of clothes that no longer fit, think of the guy in yoga class, and ask yourself, “how is that working out for me?”

A Letter To Restaurants About Self-Esteem

Dear Restaurant,

You should know that restaurants come and restaurants go. But all restaurants, yourself included, have an ideal customer to attract or a genre they are trying to occupy. Diners do their no-fuss thing with Bunn-bearing coffee fillers while the truly fancy roll out the white-tablecloth hush-hush treatment.

However, you could be one of those restaurants that want to be FUN, trendy, visually appealing and hip. Sadly, these restaurants lack self-esteem. Yes, self-esteem. In a restaurant. You show it in practices that make you look like you are trying too hard, and one habit stands out the moment courses are served: fear of empty plate space.

This plain cheesecake is garnished with raspberry sauce AND chocolate ganache, neither flavor represented in the cake. Thanks, Chef ‘docgeek’. No disrespect.

This fear can be witnessed in places as diverse as wannabe midscale chains to wannabe midscale local joints with aspirations of hipness. It is on striking display on rims of plates from starter to dessert: an unwillingness to let the food sit unmoored on the dish. You see, plate rims are for holding the contents of the plate in. They do not need a dusting of dried parsley to add visual “whatever”. Here are common manifestations:

Oh gawd, the poor, poor crème brûlée….

One caveat, dear restaurant: not ALL showy saucing is superfluous. There are places where the artistic swirl of flame red was an essential flavor component of the dish, to be mixed in and enjoyed as a true sauce. You awesome restaurants follow the sauce/garnish rule, which says that they should: 1) complement or enhance the dish’s flavors and 2) be edible.

Everyone else: just stop it, please.

Restaurants, you do often have other (not so minor) issues like not having a phone number on the website or not being open when you say you are or forgetting food orders between your table and the kitchen. Fix those issues first, and then attend to the trying-too-hard stuff. You’ll be a better place to dine.

Sincerely, It-Can’t-Just-Be-Me

Procrastinating Is Easy When You Are Not Suffering

I recently found myself in a quasi-challenge with a friend to remove a few things from our daily eating habits that were making us generally cranky, or were bothering our guts. No problem, right? Sometimes you are totally ok to walk by the ice cream at the store?

WRONG.

Here’s the thing. We are both very, very healthy. We feel good a lot of the time, AND we eat well, move around, and sleep a decent amount. Therefore, what we are doing is just the window trim, or the fluffy frosting rose on the otherwise done wedding cake. We are fine-tuning.

Dinner Option 1

Dinner Option 1?

And, fine-tuning sucks.

That’s a lot of the source of resistance to “whole food eating” (whether you call it Paleo or primal or ancestral or vegan+bacon, whatever) to average/normal people: normal people feel FINE most of the time. Sure, we have allergies, or we get sick, or our necks hurt a lot, or we poop weird a lot of the time, but hey, that’s just getting older, isn’t it?

Why the hell should we adopt this very specific diet because whatever we are eating now will/might/could make us disease-riddled in 30 years??? Fat chance. And thus, perhaps, we ensure some negative consequences down the road. But they are down the road.

Folks who have MS, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Crohn’s, or any auto-immune condition – THOSE are the highly motivated who turn their life outlook around when they use diet and lifestyle to fix themselves. They have everything to gain and only some minor inconvenience to deal with as they transition away from ramen and fried cheese balls and Pop Tarts. When they feel better, they feel GREAT.

And then they tell everyone about it. But, those they tell – the rest of us – are not highly motivated, usually. Normal folks are not-so-thirsty horses that don’t really care to be led over to the water, thanks.

Dinner Option 2

Dinner Option 2

I still think the “whole fooders” are right (whatever that means), and they are doing great things like:

But. Hmph. Sometimes the only marginally motivated just want some damn ice cream. Challenge? Hmph.

REI Ditches Return Everything Incorporated Nickname

REI's Original Flagship Store in Seattle

REI’s Original Flagship Store (courtesy of Seattle PI)

Social media has assisted in “implementing” the tragedy of the commons – after increasing awareness and braggadocio (spurred by comments in an Outside Magazine article last fall) of a particularly liberal return policy, this summer it hit REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.).

Just when it seemed that under every social media rock I found comments about REI and their standing as the place to go buy stuff at full retail because you can always ALWAYS return it no matter what, that well-distributed knowledge has spelled the end of the policy. Now, you’ll get a year for returns – unless the item is actually defective, in which case you still have a lifetime warranty.

The internets abound with stories about customers simply no longer liking their item after many years of happy use, or waterproofing not working after a decade, or the color of a bike not matching the owner’s new car. Yes, for reals.

While the policy went into effect in June, there’s been a recent bump in media coverage from the likes of Entrepreneur and the Wall Street Journal, culminating in a Morning Edition story today on NPR. Perhaps news takes longer to sink in, especially a policy change that won’t affect customers immediately. But when folks try to return their stuff and are met with the new rules, they definitely pay attention.

Other companies still have extremely liberal return policies and do not currently have plans to change such as Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and Orvis; a spokesperson for Orvis says, “We trust our customers to know where the line is,” seeming to imply that REI customers contain a bunch of freeloaders.

In recent months I’d heard from many different sources about REI’s legendary returns free-for-all, something that escaped my notice because, for one, I have a freakin’ conscience. If I took a 10 year old tent back and said it didn’t work for me anymore and got money back and a new tent, I’d feel like crap! Seriously, if the product has a defect or if it does not last as long as it should for the price, that is one thing. But REI had been suffering to some degree (profits down 4% in 2012 to $29 million – and REI is a co-op so that money goes back to the members) at the hands of those who decided it was OK to return anything because they usually paid full retail – as if their brains decided that they had built up a “buffer” of profit for REI that they are allowed to draw down upon when it suited them.

Geez, the more I write about this the more annoyed I get with those freeloaders. Therefore, let’s turn this rant OFF, and over to you. What do you think of the changes? Have you been a happy or guilty beneficiary of the old policy?