Right now, 30 pounds of dried fruit are soaking in Yadira Stamp's kitchen. In liquor. In fact, it has been soaking for two years, waiting until it makes its way into some of the 130 fruitcakes the Panama native will bake this Christmas.
"I take two days off and make all of them at once," she says. "From morning until night, that's all I'll do."
The owner of Esencias Panamenas restaurant in D.C., Stamp grew up eating her mother's fruitcake. Miss Dolly, as her mother was known, made dozens of cakes for friends and neighbors each year until her death in 1990.
Among Panamanian expats in the Washington area, that fruitcake is a taste of home during the holiday season, often served alongside a slice of ham for a salty-sweet combination of flavors. Here in the United States, however, fruitcake is generally the butt of seasonal jokes about its density and unpopularity.
This much is true: Fruitcake is almost comically heavy - all that dried fruit bound by a soupçon of cake batter, redolent with spices, brandy and rum. But if you forget that it's a fruitcake, it just smells like Christmas.
Because fruitcake becomes more flavorful with age, fall is the time to start making it. In Stamp's Panamanian version, the fruit needs to soak first for at least 30 days in a combination of brandy, dark rum and port, although she also has developed a quick method for infusing the flavor into the fruit. Then she bakes the cakes just after Panama's Mother's Day on Dec. 8, so they're ready to deliver to customers by mid-month.
"That first Christmas, everyone started saying to me, 'We hope we're still getting our fruitcake this year,' " Stamp says. "I was like, 'No, I don't know how to make it.' "
It took her a few years to master it - "The first one was a disaster. The sugar didn't dissolve, you could feel the grains crunch when you took a bite" - but eventually Stamp came up with a recipe based on memories of watching her mother make fruitcake.
Richard Burr, on the other hand, likes to start fruitcake preparation in early October, just after his wife's birthday, although he sometimes doesn't get the baking done until after Bonfire Night, Nov. 5. A finalist on "The Great British Bake-Off" amateur baking competition and author of "BIY: Bake It Yourself" (Quadrille, 2015), Burr says in an email that "you can make it closer to Christmas, but it won't taste as rich. It gets much, much better with age, so six to 12 weeks before Christmas is ideal."
Whether it's Burr's classic British recipe or the Panamanian variation, alcohol is a key part of the process. Stamp's fruitcake relies on soaking the fruits well in advance of baking, while the British version is baked first, then brushed every few days with brandy or rum in a process called "feeding" the fruitcake. Either method allows the liquor to help develop deep flavors over the course of weeks or months. "Most home bakers start talking about making theirs in October," Burr says, "mainly so we can soak as much brandy into them as we can, and for us, it's a real focal point of our Christmas."
PJ Hamel, senior digital content editor with King Arthur Flour and a fruitcake aficionado, prefers to feed her fruitcake with a mixture of simple syrup and rum. "I don't like to brush with straight liquor," she says. "I find it can give the cake too 'liquory' a flavor, especially if you don't use a top-quality liquor."
But what about that aged cake; is it safe to eat when it has been sitting around awhile? Hamel says she thinks so, because liquor and sugar are preservatives. In England, long-term storage was once the rule: Burr notes that a fruitcake traditionally made up the top tier of a wedding cake and was saved to be served as a christening cake. "As the U.K. has become much more secular, this is less common," he says. "I also think people have become more squeamish about saving a fruitcake for years between a wedding and christening. There's a perception that it's a bit unhygienic."
USDA guidelines state that fruitcake can be stored for one month at room temperature, six months in the refrigerator and a year in the freezer. A food safety researcher at North Carolina State University said in 2014 that the low moisture content of dried and candied fruits, plus the preserving properties of alcohol, could make fruitcake shelf-stable for at least several months.
Hygiene concerns aside, the real problem that most people seem to have with fruitcake is simple: the candied fruit.
"I honestly think it's the citron and mixed peel that most people object to," says Hamel. "They're strong and bitter-flavored. I make fruitcake with dried pineapple, apricots, cranberries, golden raisins, apples and dates: in other words, my favorite dried fruits, ones I like to snack on by themselves."
Although celebrated Southern food expert Nathalie Dupree famously declared her dislike of fruitcake many years ago, she included a recipe for Georgia Fruitcake - attributed to chef Anne Sterling - in her classic 1986 cookbook "New Southern Cooking." It is a clear example of Hamel's point: packed with dried peaches and pecans, then moistened with peach nectar and brandy, creating a heady, peach-laden loaf that's golden and inviting, without a dyed green candied cherry in sight.
For Stamp, however, that multicolored and candied mix of cherries, lemon and orange peel, citron and pineapple is a requirement, though she prefers to chop it finely. "That's the only kind of fruit we use in Panama, along with raisins," she says. "Sometimes people might use prunes or dried dates, but that would only be if they couldn't find the other fruit." It is mixed with mincemeat, an aromatic blend of apples and raisins, plus spices typically used in tarts and pies.
She also has a special ingredient that she's able to find only in Panama: a flavoring called Esencia de Cake Mix, which tastes like a cross between vanilla and cherry extracts. "I've tried to find it in the United States," Stamp says, "but I can't, so I just get it by the gallon when I'm in Panama. I think it adds a flavor of home."
The most intriguing difference between the fruitcake commonly made in the Americas and the U.K. version is the baking method. Although the ingredients, proportions and even oven temperature are largely similar, a British fruitcake, which is encased in parchment paper while in the oven, relies on a long, slow bake, sometimes for more than four hours. That can seem like a mistake when compared with an American or Caribbean recipe, where the baking time generally clocks in at just over an hour.
It's a difference that puzzles bakers on both sides of the pond. "The longer cooking time should give more depth of flavor, possibly due to extra caramelization in the oven," theorizes Burr, while Hamel says that American cakes might have a touch more leavening in the batter, yielding a less dense cake that bakes more quickly than its British counterpart.
Whatever the method, the result for all the accompanying fruitcake recipes is moist, rich and just a little bit buzzy. "I'm not a big cake eater," says Stamp, "but this is the one cake that I'll keep eating, going back for another sliver, until I have to get somebody to hide it from me so I won't eat the whole thing by myself."
The fruit for this rich, traditional Caribbean cake needs time to soak in a mixture of rum, brandy and port, so start it now for December eating.
You'll need a 9-inch round cake pan with sides at least 2 inches high.
Liquid burnt sugar, which tastes like a cross between molasses and caramel, can be purchased online or at Caribbean grocery stores.
MAKE AHEAD: The fruit should soak for at least 30 days. (Or follow quick-soak directions; see NOTES.) The cake can be wrapped and stored in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months (with periodic brushing; see below) or frozen for up to 6 months.
From Yadira Stamp, chef-owner of Esencias Panameñas in D.C.
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons vegetable shortening
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons water
3/4 teaspoon liquid burnt sugar (see headnote)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups prepared fruits (see NOTE)
1/2 cup mincemeat (with brandy; see headnote)
2 tablespoons rum, or more for long-term storage (see headnote)
2 tablespoons brandy, or more for long-term storage (see headnote)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease the pan with baker's spray, then line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and salt onto a sheet of parchment or wax paper.
Combine the butter, shortening and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until light and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the bowl.
Whisk the eggs in a separate bowl until evenly combined, adding the water gradually until well incorporated. Whisk in the liquid burnt sugar and vanilla extract.
Add the egg mixture to the butter-sugar mixture in the mixer bowl, then fold in the prepared fruits and their liquid, plus the mincemeat; this may be best to do by hand, because the mixture can be heavy and could potentially burn out the mixer motor. Add the flour mixture a quarter-cup at a time, combining thoroughly. A spoon should be able to stand up in the middle of the batter.
Spoon the batter into the cake pan and smooth the surface. Bake (middle rack) for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; if that does not happen, reduce the temperature to 300 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
Let the cake cool in its pan for 1 hour.
Use a toothpick or wooden skewer to poke several holes in the top of the cake, then mix the rum and brandy together and pour on top of the cake. Remove the cake from the pan; if not serving right away, wrap the cake tightly in aluminum foil or plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 1 week, brushing the top of the cake with 2 teaspoons of rum or brandy once each week. The cake can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place; brushing the top of the cake with 2 teaspoons of brandy or rum once a week, to help keep it moist, for up to 6 weeks..
NOTE: To make the prepared fruits, combine 1 1/4 cups finely chopped Paradise Extra Fancy Fruit Cake Mix (candied fruits), 1 1/4 cups raisins, 1/2 cup currants, 1/4 cup rum, 2 tablespoons brandy and 2 tablespoons port in an airtight container. Let the fruits soak for at least 30 days. If unable to soak for a long period, place all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. This quick-cook mixture can be placed in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks, until ready to use.
Per serving: 260 calories, 2 g protein, 48 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 90 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 34 g sugar
16 to 20 servings (makes 2 loaf pan cakes)
A blend of dried peaches and pecans gives this cake a sweet and nutty balance, while the addition of both peach nectar and peach brandy puts the emphasis on Georgia's beloved fruit. Use orange blossom honey to amp up the floral note of the candied orange peel.
You'll need two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans.
MAKE AHEAD: The cakes can be made several weeks in advance, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in a cool, dark place. Unwrap to brush their tops once a week with a teaspoon or two of peach brandy.
Adapted from a recipe by Georgia chef Anne Sterling, by cookbook author Nathalie Dupree.
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans
2 cups flour, plus more for the pans1 cup candied orange peel, chopped
2 cups dried peaches, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 cup peach brandy, plus more for long-term storage (see headnote)
5 1/2 cups chopped pecans
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup peach nectar
3 dried orange wheels, cut into half-moons (optional)
Lightly grease the loaf pans with butter and dust them with flour, then line the pans with parchment paper.
Combine the orange peel and dried peaches in a medium saucepan with 1/4 cup of the peach brandy and toss well to coat; cook over low heat for 15 minutes, then let cool to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Add the pecans and 1/2 cup of the flour to the fruit mixture and toss to coat evenly. Sift the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour together with the baking powder, salt, cinnamon, allspice and ginger onto a sheet of parchment or wax paper.
Combine the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until light and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On low speed, add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Stop to scrape down the bowl. Add the honey, cream, peach nectar and the flour-baking powder mixture; beat on low speed until well incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer; fold in the fruit and nut mixture until evenly distributed.
Divide the batter evenly between the loaf pans, smoothing the surfaces. Decorate each one with 3 orange wheels, if using. Bake (middle rack) for 1 1/2 hours, then check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center. If it does not come out clean, continue to bake, checking every 5 minutes, until the toothpick does come out clean.
Transfer the cakes (in their pans) to a wire rack. Use a toothpick or wooden skewer to poke several holes in the tops, then gradually pour the remaining brandy (1/4 cup each) over each one. Let cool for 1 hour, then remove the cakes from their pans and continue to cool on the racks to room temperature. Serve, or wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store in a cool, dry place (not refrigerated) for up to several weeks (see headnote directions for keeping them moist for long-term storage).
Per serving (based on 20): 490 calories, 6 g protein, 48 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 25 g sugar
Hartke is a Washington food writer and editor.
Special to The Washington Post · Kristen Hartke