Friday, December 24, 2021

World's Best Fruitcake!

Maybe you’re thinking, “Ew, I hate fruitcake.” Too bad for you! Because with an attitude like that, you’ll miss out on something spectacular.

Today I’m celebrating a genuinely superlative fruitcake. The kind to swoon over. The kind to completely hide from people who “don’t like” fruitcake (pearls before swine) . . . and the kind to hide from people who like fruitcakes, too (’cuz no, it’s mine, all mine!). The kind you hide from everybody, because you want every crumb for yourself.

. . . To savor.

We are so happy to have an annual cross-continent gift exchange with our dear friends Steve and Sherri, who live in Seattle. We send them an assortment of my homemade cookies, and they send us one of Sherri’s homemade, made-from-scratch fruitcakes.

It’s totally not a fair exchange. What Sherri sends us is far, far beyond my feeble cookie gifts. (Sherri? Me dilettante, you master.)

I remember the few winters we spent together as neighbors in Montana. Steve and Sherri lived next door to us in an elderly duplex in Helena, midway between downtown and the capitol complex, the last house on South Raleigh as it ascended Sugarloaf Hill. I’ve never had such fun neighbors. One winter, after endless bitter cold, it finally, albeit prematurely, got up above freezing. At almost the same moment, Steve and I both emerged from our respective front doors, glanced at each other, and laughed at each others’ shorts. Look, it’s a heat wave! Steve grinned and purred, “Ahh, another balmy day in beautiful Helena, Montana!”

They are epicures, and they don’t take life too heavily. Steve mountain-biked all over town as well as in the nearby mountains. Sherri created lovely, elaborate dishes, apparently with complete ease, and the four of us had many meals together—often in our shared backyard, or on the front porch, with its gorgeous view of the sunsets behind Mount Helena.

Well, one winter, Sherri decided to put her formal culinary training (yes!) to use in making fruitcake from scratch.

Do you have any idea what that means? It was days in the making, because she candied her own fruit! Orange and lemon peel, apricots, pineapple, pears, cherries, you name it. Their apartment smelled like magic after Sherri spent whole days simmering fruits in sugar syrup. And Sherri used perfect, fresh, whole nuts—hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, you name it. And luscious prunes, figs, and dates. All this was in preparation for the actual construction and baking of the cakes.

These are works of art. There’s just enough cake batter to hold the gorgeous, colorful, translucent fruits and nuts together. If you slice it thinly enough, it looks like a stained glass window.

It really does.

And the flavor. Mercy!

I’ve been meaning to write again about fruits at Christmas, and how our parents and grandparents, and everyone before them, considered fruits at Christmas a real treat. It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t get all kinds of fresh produce in midwinter. Winter was for cabbage, meat, and potatoes, over and over again. So dried fruits at Christmas were a treasure. They were expensive. Apricots, pears, apples, plums, cherries, grapes, strawberries. And fruitcakes celebrate that.

And so I celebrate fruitcake, specifically Sherri’s fruitcake, which we’ve been enjoying annually for several years now. Sherri, you’ve perfected it. In our humble opinion, you could serve this to the queen. You could sell this for about a million dollars. Nobody does it better. You rock.

So on December 25, once again, breakfast will be a slice of Sherri’s beautiful, precious fruitcake and coffee. Maybe the coffee will be elevated by a little Bailey’s Irish Cream, or Kahlua, Grand Marnier, or some such. It’ll have to be good to pair with the fruitcake.

Merry Christmas!

P.S. This year Sherri also sent us some homemade plum chutney! Her modest little comment on the card noted that the chutney was from their plum tree and that it is “pretty good with some blue cheese on a cracker.” . . . “Pretty good,” she says. When Julia Child or Jacques PĂ©pin says something is “pretty good,” it’s time to sit up and take notice, because to us mere mortals, it means, “Try this, it’ll knock your socks off!” I can’t wait!

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Fruitcake Bars

I haven’t been posting much because my evenings have been filled with elvish baking projects! Like I’ve been doing for years now, I made a bunch of Christmas cookies and gave them as gifts this year. Many of my recipes, especially the oldtime family favorites, make dozens and dozens of cookies (even when I quarter the recipe!). But here’s one that makes a smaller amount.

On the “up” side, they are completely delicious, AND they ship well. I love these.

This is not one of my traditional family favorites, passed down through the ages. It’s one I’ve acquired and added to my annual list because “I make these for me.”

They are fruitcake bars. I begged the recipe from Marilynn Keil, who at that time was the longtime executive staff assistant at the University of Missouri Press. (She was the kind of executive staff assistant who truly ran the whole operation. You know the type: soft-spoken, but she knew more about everything than everyone else put together. These days, we call them “unicorns” because they are often believed not to exist in real life.) Anyway, she had brought in a batch to share with us at the press. (Yes! “And she brought cookies!” . . . Can a single human being be any more awesome?) She had gotten the recipe from her mother, Marge Ball.

After a bit of internet searching, I found that her mom must have adapted the recipe from the venerable Maida Heatter, who included a nearly identical recipe in her famous Maida Heatter’s Cookies, now a classic cookbook. I’ll bet her mom owned a copy.

Apparently, Maida Heatter’s original, published version is different, as it apparently suggests, for the candied fruit, a mixture of red or green candied cherries, candied pineapple, and/or the mixed candied-fruit blend you can get at the store. BUT because Marilynn’s mom suggests dried, not candied fruits, specifically pineapple and apricots, it really changes the flavor. I think it must be for the better.

Hold on—I can hear you saying, “EW! Fruitcake!!! Blechh!!!” But no—seriously—these are excellent. Addictive. I have to slap my own hand to keep from gobbling these up and having to make a second batch for gifts.

If you follow Mrs. Ball’s version, you’ll use dried, not candied fruit, which is what so many people object to. Many people strongly dislike the commercially available candied fruits made for home baking. (I also urge you to reflect on what it is about “candied fruit” you dislike. Chances are, you’ve only had the preservative-laden, garishly colored stuff from the grocery store. But if you make your own candied fruit, or buy from a boutique maker, or purchase—ooh-la-la—what les français call “les fruits confits,” you’ll realize that candying fruit is a fine art, an ancient art, and one well worth pursuing.) Here in America, plain dried pineapple and apricots are readily available and high quality. So like Mrs. Ball, let’s use those.

I’d also like to add that I’ve been making these for years, now, and I’ve heard no complaints.

These are easy, rather healthy, and an excellent “fix” if you’re longing for some fruitcake but don’t want to commit to making an entire loaf. They also look pretty on a cookie tray, especially dusted (or as I do, drenched) in powdered sugar.

I’ve edited it slightly.

Thanks, Marilynn. I hope you’re having a lovely Christmas season! I miss you.

Fruitcake Bars

  • 1½ cups walnuts, broken into pieces
  • 1 cup raisins (I use a combination of golden and dark —JS)
  • 1 cup pitted dates (in large pieces)
  • 1 cup candied or dried fruit (a combination of dried pineapple and dried apricots is good) (— YES! —JS)
  • 1 cup flour, divided (¼ cup + ¾ cup)
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • finely grated peel of one large orange (I use a microplane zester; you only want the orange part, not the pith —JS) confectioner’s sugar (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Combine all fruit and nuts in a large bowl, sprinkle with ¼ cup flour, and toss till coated; set aside. In a smaller bowl, beat the eggs just until blended; add salt, brown sugar, and vanilla; and stir in the remaining ¾ cup flour until blended (use wire whip). Stir in the orange peel. (The batter will be thin.) Pour the batter over the fruit/nut mixture and blend well. Spread in a greased ca. 10 x 15 x 1 inch (jelly-roll) pan; bake in 325-degree oven for 30–35 minutes or until golden brown on top. Halfway through baking, swap it end-for-end to ensure even baking. Cool in pan. With a small knife, loosen the edge, cut into small bars or squares. Can dust with confectioner’s sugar, before cutting, if desired. Or you can roll/coat individual cut bars in confectioner’s sugar. Store in an airtight container. These ship well.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Schroeder Weihnachtspyramide 2021

This is a Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramid) built by Albert Thomas ca. 1890. Albert and his wife, Wilhelmine, were German immigrants who arrived in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1888. The pyramide was already about twenty years old when their youngest daughter, Edna, was about five, in 1910, per our family's earliest photo of it. Edna married Walter Schroeder in 1930, and the couple lived in the same house as Albert and Wilhelmine Thomas and continued to display it each year after the Thomases passed away in the 1940s.

With few exceptions, this Weihnachtspyramide has no doubt been used as a Christmas decoration every year since it was built around 1890. That's about 130 years!

Albert Thomas constructed the Weihnachtspyramide from a variety of materials. The paddles at the top were made from scrap wood from fruit crates. The central axle is a broomstick; on it rests the three circular platforms (made of cardboard). One of the hooplike, horizontal supports around the outer structure is from a discarded band saw. In its earliest form, when rising candle heat made the angled top paddles spin, friction was minimized at the pivot point at the bottom of the rotating broomstick by having a downward-pointing nail attached at the base of the broomstick, and the nail tip rested on a piece of glass. It had to be adjusted to balance perfectly in order for it to spin properly.

The family refers to this as a Christmas "tree," but it is more closely related to the wooden pyramiden that are hand-carved in the Erzgebirge region of Germany. Those often have little candles at the four bottom corners to provide the heat necessary to turn the platforms into little processionals at the center. Our family's pyramide has been altered so much over the years it's truly unique; a form of living folk art that changes slightly every year.

We have several photos of the "tree" taken over the decades. Many of the ornaments and figurines go back to the early 1900s and are visible in the old photos. The Thomases used to attach sprigs of real cedar or other greenery to the frame, in addition to the ornaments.

An early change was when the original candles were replaced with small coal-oil (kerosene) lanterns (three of these are still used as ornaments). Then, in the 1940s, those were replaced with strands of multicolored electric lights. A small electric fan, mounted on a nearby window frame, was directed on the paddles, turning the central platforms. (We even still have the fan, though it doesn't work, and the holes in the window frame are still there!)

In the 1950s, Edna's son Walter ("Buddy") procured a music box designed for rotating a small Christmas tree, and the tree was transformed again. This allowed Edna to greatly increase the amount of ornaments, greenery, and other decorations on the frame, the inner platforms, and even hanging from the paddles. Today, in the interest of being kind to the now-antique music box, we have opted to reduce the amount of objects hanging from the paddles.

Edna (my grandma) passed away in 2000, and we purchased her house in 2001. The Weihnachtspyramide (with its special attic closet) came with the house. I'm doing my best to care for it. We've made some changes--for example, replacing some ca. 1950s light strings that no longer worked and whose plastic sockets were literally crumbling away--but that's what Grandma would have done. She kept it "young." So it's my job to fiddle with it, too.

Apologies for the defects of my video. I'll keep working on my skills with the camera. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into our family's unusual "tree," and I hope you have a merry, and a blessed Christmas.

For more information about our Weihnachtspyramide, see my blog posts about it. Here's a good place to start.

And if you're wondering how this comes apart for storage, here's where you look.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Cranberry-Orange Jell-O Mold

This is the one. This is the one.

I’ve tried and enjoyed a lot of cranberry relish preparations over the years. Several of them were good enough to secure places in my precious hand-copied recipe card files—I think of these as The Greats: Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish and Madhur Jaffrey’s Garlicky Cranberry Chutney, and the tried-and-true, raw “grind up a bunch of fresh cranberries, whole oranges, and pecans with some white sugar” chunky stuff, which always makes much more than anyone can finish before its freshness turns into, well, yuk (the pith from the chopped whole orange becomes makes it increasingly bitter the longer it sits).

But this Jell-O cranberry dish is my new keeper. I made it last year, and I made it again this year, and hey, it’s the bomb.

Here’s what it has going for it:

  • Cranberry flavor and cranberry tartness, but not too much (cranberry relish’s purpose is to add brightness and zip to the heavy Thanksgiving meal, but you don’t want it to blow your hair back). (And yes, I personally like to sip unsweetened cranberry juice, but I wouldn’t inflict it on my loved ones. But I digress.)
  • Powerful fresh orange flavor (which goes super well with the cranberry flavor).
  • Sweetness (there, I said it; it’s sweet, which means everyone will like it, even children, and even those with the palate of a child, which on some level is everyone).
  • Gelatin: you can make it as a single, larger mold or in individual molds, and it glistens with red and orange colors, so it’s pretty (not like the chunky raw cranberry relish, which just looks vomitous). Our brown-dominated Thanksgiving meal plates usually need more beautiful colors.
  • Jell-O: it’s a retro recipe, so for those old enough to remember Great Aunt Lyddie’s midcentury Jell-O preparations, it will give you some warm fuzzies.

My recipe is based on something called “Cranberry Surprise,” in the Joys of Jell-O, 8th edition (apparently from 1960, but there’s not a copyright date on it), page 70. (This edition had two different covers, so do not get confused if you are looking to buy a used copy.)

“Cranberry Surprise”: what an awful, boring name. The original recipe allows you to swap out Jell-O flavors, so at some point you don’t have an actual recipe but more of an “idea.” . . . But I tell you, using orange Jell-O has to be the best option. So here you go.

Cranberry-Orange Jell-O Mold, a.k.a. Cranberry Surprise

This makes about 3½ cups (or seven ½-cup servings). So you may need to double it for your group, or if you want to have ample leftovers to go with your other Thanksgiving leftovers.

  • 1 small/regular box orange Jell-O
  • 3/4 cup boiling water
  • 1 can whole cranberries in sauce
  • One orange:
    • --zest from 1 orange (use a microplane grater; you want the zest, not the pith)
    • --pulp from 1 orange (finely chopped, including all the juices; sharpen your knife, because you get bonus points for taking care to remove all bitter pith and membrane)

Dissolve the Jell-O in water. Stir in the can of cranberries, breaking it up. Add the orange zest, chopped orange pulp, and juices. Pour into prepared molds (follow standard tips for molding and unmolding Jell-O).

This is a great use for vintage small Jell-O molds, if you have them. You can also make small individual molds using little teacups, small ramekins, juice glasses, shot glasses, etc. Or, you can pour the mixture into the can that the cranberries came in, and use that as your mold; then, unmold it and slice. Or, you can gel it in a rectangular Pyrex dish and cut into cubes for serving. Or pass the big dish and let people dip theirs out with a spoon. Nobody’s judging you.

Can you use canned mandarin orange slices and juices? I guess so . . . but it wouldn’t be as fresh and good. The Thanksgiving table has precious few fresh fruits on it, and I know your guests will appreciate the extra effort to use the pulp from a fresh orange.

Can you add chopped nuts? No. Yuk! Gross, just no. I forbid it! What are you thinking? Nuts are for cookies and muffins. Keep them out of your Jell-O and ice cream!

Finally, for fun, and to spoof all the cooking blogs that have a picture of every little frickin’ step in the preparation, I’m including photos of alllllll the steps: “This is what 3/4 of a cup of water looks like”; “here’s what a gas burner looks like when it’s turned on”; “here’s what boiling water looks like”; etc. I hope you enjoy it!

. . . Yep, after you've zested and chopped your orange, you have to get yer can of cranberry sauce. I don't know why they package it upside down. Who the heck has an upside-down can opener?

Dump the canned cranberry sauce into your carefully, lovingly chopped orange, zest, and juices.

Mash it together with a fork. See?

This is what 3/4 of a cup of water looks like, in a 1-cup measuring cup. Eyeball it very carefully. We don't fool around here at the Opulent Opossum!

Now we're cookin' with gas! If you have BTUs like I do, that little bit of water will be boiling in no time!

Ye olde box of orange Jell-O. Did you know Jell-O was the longtime sponsor of the Jack Benny radio show? Also, did you know that you can hear nearly all the old Jack Benny radio shows on YouTube? They have special uploads that have just a black screen, you can listen to them at night, like in the olden days.

Here's another critical step you need a picture of: Open. The. Box. Of. Jell-O. And. Remove. The. Inner. Pouch.

Boil that 3/4 cup of water. I use an old Revere Ware percolator coffee pot.

You gotta stir that Jell-O powder and boiling water together for a few minutes to get it to dissolve. (You didn't know that already???)

You knew this was going to happen: You stir the orange stuff, cranberry sauce, and dissolved Jell-O all together.

Time to get out your dainty little Jell-O molds, teacups, ramekins, or whatever, if you're using them. You might wish to spray them with a bit of PAM or equivalent, which helps the unmolding. But I'm not here to give you Jell-O unmolding tips. You'll have to find that elsewhere.

Now, aren't they pretty? Note that I didn't fill them all the way, because I know my people won't want a large serving. For us, it's better to have more, smaller molds with the option for having seconds.

Put them suckers into the fridge overnight. To transfer them, it helps to use a tray, especially if your kitchen fridge is busted, like ours is, and you have to carry them downstairs to your second, beer-and-soda fridge.

Don't forget the inevitable: clean it up, or it'll turn into epoxy and you'll need to soak your dishes in hot water. Don't say I didn't warn you!