November is a month of mixed blessings, in my mind.
First, of course, is the reality of winter setting in, the nights longer and darker, days shorter and icier, and sun sightings fewer and fewer. And, every Nov. 11, as we pay homage to the too many veterans of too many wars, it’s not without sadness. I will, as always, wonder what he would have been like, now, had my handsome, funny, fun-loving Uncle Buddy not gone down in flames.
The early days of this November, of course, we’ve been preoccupied with the elections, some of which are as yet ongoing (and tiresome). Associated with that process, we’ve been subjected to some major non-blessings, the endless ads, placards sullying the roadsides, robot telephone calls, and blather, blather, blather. The outcome is considered by some to be a blessing, by others a blight. I will consider it a blessing when I no longer have to listen to the post-election analyzing and conjecturing.
But then, thankfully, before we can blink, we’re in pre-Thanksgiving mode, looking forward to holiday fun with family, friends and some great food.
Even this, however, is not without its mixed blessings. I’m still trying to adjust to Thanksgiving without my Mother and Dad; it’s not been that long since they left for other lives in other worlds and they were, for so many of my large family, the very center of our Thanksgivings.
And this year, once again, another newly empty chair at the table will be especially difficult, given its unexpectedness.
But, as I said before, it’s a time of mixed blessings, because the emptiness of that spot at the table will be filled with the exuberant squalling of a new addition to the general familial melee. And thus the cycle goes on, as it has forever, truly a blessing.
Ah, but even as we pull out the Thanksgiving recipes and start talking turkey, along comes another of November’s mixed messages. If Thanksgiving is just around the corner, we know what follows. As of today, friends, we have only 44 shopping days until Christmas, a piece of information I’m sure you may not think of as a blessing. In other words, if it’s almost mid-November, the holiday countdown clock is ticking.
Let me leave you with one other little reminder of what I consider to be one of November’s blessings, but which, unfortunately, many of you may think of instead as a curse. If it’s November, it’s time to talk fruitcake.
If you’re among those who just groaned, perhaps even gagged at the mention of fruitcake, you might want to rethink your built-in prejudices. I have three recipes (out of probably at least
50 others) that might change your taste buds. Give it a chance; try this delectable fruit loaf.
ALMOND FRUIT LOAF
8 oz. each, dried apricots and pitted prunes (now called dried plums)
4 cups coarsely chopped almonds
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
2½ t. baking powder
1 T. vanilla
Heavily butter and dust with flour a 9-inch loaf pan. In a large bowl, combine the fruits, almonds, flour, ¾ cup of the sugar and baking powder. Stir to mix evenly.
Using an electric mixer, beat together eggs and remaining ¼ cup sugar until about tripled in volume. Add vanilla. Pour this mixture over the flour mixture; blend with a heavy spoon until thoroughly mixed.
Pack cake mixture evenly into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated 300-degree oven until lightly browned, about 2 hrs. Let cool in pan on a rack for
15 min. then invert onto the rack to cool completely. Serve thinly sliced. Makes 12-16 slices.
Note: If you wish to make the loaf ahead and keep for the holidays, wrap cooled loaf in plastic wrap then in foil and freeze until the day you wish to use it. You can also wrap the loaf in cheesecloth soaked in sherry or brandy, wrap tightly in foil and keep in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. You may also substitute any of your favorite dried fruits for the apricots and prunes, if desired.
Or, perhaps these individual Italian fruitcakes can persuade you to look at fruitcake with new eyes. You need to make these at least a week ahead of the time you plan to use or gift them.
ITALIAN FRANGELICO FRUITCAKES WITH CHOCOLATE SAUCE
3 cups hazelnuts, toasted, husked, coarsely chopped
12 oz. diced figs (Calimyrna, if available)
8 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (don’t use unsweetened)
1/3 cup minced crystallized ginger
1¼ cups unsalted butter, at room temp.
1 cup sugar
5 large eggs
2 cups Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
2 T. grated orange peel
2 cups flour
½ cup cake flour
½ t. salt
For the sauce: 12 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2/3 cup whipping cream
1/3 cup Frangelico
Butter and flour 12 mini Bundt molds (most of us don’t have those, so use
12 oversize muffin tin cups; they need to be about 1 cup capacity). Toss nuts, figs, chocolate and ginger in a bowl to blend.
Using electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl until smooth and fluffy. Beat in eggs, ¼ cup of the Frangelico and orange peel (it may look curdled at this point; don’t worry). Sift both flours and salt together over the batter; mix in. Stir in nut and fruit mixture.
Divide the batter among the molds and bake cakes in a preheated 300-degree oven about 45 min., or until a tester inserted near center comes out clean. If you’re using muffin cups, it may take 10 min. longer baking time. Turn cakes out onto racks and brush with ¼ cup of the liqueur. Cool cakes completely.
Cut out 12 cheesecloth squares (about 10-inch). Pour 1½ cups of the liqueur into a small bowl. Dip a square in the bowl, squeeze out some but not all liqueur and wrap 1 cake in the cheesecloth. Repeat until all cakes are wrapped, using more liqueur, if necessary. Chill at least a week and up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temp. before serving.
To make sauce: Stir together chocolate, 2/3 cup cream and liqueur in a heavy saucepan over low heat until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth. Arrange 1 cake on a plate, drizzle with sauce. Pipe or spoon whipped cream alongside, if desired; serve.
Still not ready to change your mind about fruitcake? What if we added chocolate; would that help?
ORANGE CHOCOLATE PECAN FRUITCAKE
2 1/2 cups large pecan pieces, toasted
1 cup (packed) chopped dried black figs
1 cup (packed) chopped pitted prunes (now often called dried plums)
1 cup (packed) chopped pitted dates
1/2 cup frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
1/4 cup orange liqueur
2 T. grated orange peel
3 cups flour
3/4 cup (packed) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/2 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1 1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
1 lb. dark brown sugar
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temp.
4 oz. cream cheese, room temp.
4 large eggs, room temp.
3/4 cup purchased prune butter (available usually in kosher section of supermarket; if you don’t find it, substitute apple butter; it’s for moistness)
For the glaze: 1/2 cup plus 2 T. unsalted butter
1 lb. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
6 T. orange juice concentrate, thawed
Chopped candied fruit peel, optional
Position rack in bottom third of oven. Generously butter and flour a 12-cup angel food cake pan. Combine toasted pecans, figs, prunes, dates, orange juice concentrate, orange liqueur and grated peel in a large bowl. Let stand 30 min., stirring occasionally.
Sift together flour, cocoa, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a med. bowl. Combine brown sugar and 6 oz. chocolate in food processor to chop into small pieces.
Using electric mixer, beat butter and cream cheese in a large bowl to blend. Add chocolate mixture; beat until fluffy. Beat in eggs 1 at a time. Beat in prune butter. Stir in 1/4 of the dry ingredients, then mix in fruit mixture and remaining dry ingredients, in 3 additions each.
Transfer batter to prepared pan; bake in a preheated 325-degree oven about 1 hr. 50 min., or until a tester inserted near center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Cool 5 min. then turn pan over onto rack. Let stand 5 min., lift off pan and cool cake completely. Wrap cake in plastic and store at room temp. for 2 days.
To make glaze: Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add chocolate; stir until melted and smooth. Whisk in orange juice concentrate. Place cake on a rack. Spread some of the glaze thickly over top and sides; refrigerate 15 min. Spread remaining chocolate glaze over cake, covering completely. Sprinkle with chopped candied fruit peel, if desired. Refrigerate cake 30 min. to set glaze. Makes 16 servings.
Note: Fruitcake can be prepared 3 weeks ahead; wrap cake in plastic and refrigerate.