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Return of the Fruitcake

Austrian Fruit Bread | Delightful Crumb

Christmas is just around the corner, and I am here with fruitcake. I know my timing is bad—if by chance you have the time to spare in the next two days to make a fruitcake, it will have very little time to sit around and develop in flavor before the big day. You’ve (hopefully) planned all of your gifts already, and your menu too. I’m really far too late.

But do you know what timing I think I AM nailing? Fruitcake timing. It’s back! It’s time! I might, for once, be a tiny bit ahead of the curve here, but we Americans have evolved in our taste preferences enough to welcome in the glorious fruitcake, haven’t we? People are into bitter flavors and natural wine and weird grains and funk. We’re cutting back on sugar not for health but flavor. We’re into aging our food. In that landscape, those silly fruitcake jokes must be tired.

I made a fruitcake this year—more specifically, früchtebrot, an Austrian fruit bread. I wanted to tap into the often-less-sweet, deeply flavored, dried-fruit-and-nut-reliant European holiday flavor profile, and this fit the bill. Europeans, if I may generalize for a moment here, are very good at Christmas treats: stollen, panettone, fruitcake, gingerbread, to name just a few. They seem to be very good at Christmas in general—my personal experience is limited, but we do watch Rick Steves’s European Christmas every year. Last night, we went to a Swedish julbord, which was definitely my most charming experience thus far this holiday season (it included a about a dozen different variations on pickled herring, speaking of foods that deserve a second chance!). And have you read Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles?! Does that man ever love Christmas!

Anyway, I blanched almonds and peeled off the skins by hand, chopped piles and piles of dried fruits, let them rest overnight with sugar and rum and baked four bumpy loaves. I was absolutely taken with the result, but I wasn’t sure that was the universal response. I timidly served thin slices as part of dessert spread when my friend Erin visited from Oakland, and she loved it, too. I gave a piece to a new friend, who enthusiastically told me he’s a fruitcake fan. We discussed whether fruitcake was about to have a comeback, and he referenced a book he read in elementary school that stars fruitcake. I didn’t know what he was talking about, my primary education thus stunted, but he followed up later to tell me that it was Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, which Erin had just gifted to me—kismet! And then, I debated bringing yet more fruitcake to my hairstylist but didn’t, mostly out of forgetfulness but also out of a fear that this is still a weird gift. She proceeded to tell me, entirely unprompted, about how her favorite holiday treat is her husband’s Aunt Marty’s fruitcake! And Aunt Marty won’t share the recipe!

So just remember: you heard it here first. The fruitcake is happening in December 2020. You have a full year to nail your rendition. Here is a place to start.

A very happy Christmas season and a hope-filled new year to you, my friends.

Früchtebrot: Austrian Fruit Bread

Adapted from Luisa Weiss’s Classic German Baking

Make 4 (8-inch) loaves

You can adjust the proportions of the various dried fruits, and the types as well. I gave Luisa’s ratio below, but I used about equal portions dates, figs and prunes and slightly more raisins than called for. Luisa notes that pears were traditional for this specific bread. You can also use bourbon instead of rum; either way, the amount is slim enough that it doesn’t yield an overly boozy loaf.

Austrian Fruit Bread | Delightful Crumb

1 pound 1 ounce (500 g) pitted dried dates

8 3/4 ounces (250 g) dried figs

7 ounces (200 g) prunes

1/2 cup (75 g) raisins

1 cup (150 g) blanched whole almonds

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (200 g) confectioners’ sugar

1/2 cup (120 ml) dark rum

2 1/4 cups (280 g) all-purpose flour

4 eggs

Chop the dates, figs and prunes into 1/4-inch pieces, put them in a large bowl and mix in the raisins. Coarsely chop the almonds until pebbly. Add the almonds and the sugar to the fruit. Stir, then pour the rum into the bowl and stir again, until well combined. Cover with a clean dishcloth and let sit at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove the dishcloth from the bowl and add one-quarter of the flour. Mix well and add an egg. Mix well. Repeat with the next quarter of the flour and egg, mixing well again, and continue this process until all of the flour and eggs have been added. Knead by hand, making sure that the dough is well incorporated. It will be very stiff.

Divide the dough into quarters. Wet your hands with cold water and form each quarter into an 8-inch long loaf. Place them on the baking sheet, spaced just slightly apart (the loaves won’t spread).

Bake for 35 minutes, until the loaves are golden brown and dry to the touch. Place the pan on a rack and let the loaves cool completely.

To store, wrap each fruitcake in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil. They will keep for 2 weeks. To serve, slice very thinly into 1/8-inch thick slices with a sharp or serrated knife.

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