Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Frosty's Flipped Fruitcake and The Brooklyn Holiday Experiment

Poor fruitcake. It's always the butt of jokes this time of year, and, unfortunately, for good reason: it's usually dense, booze-soaked but somehow dry in texture, and filled with frightening artificially colored candied fruits. But fruitcake doesn't have to be such a disaster. It can be good - even delicious - if it's approached with a fresh perspective.
Photo from Metromix NY
Last week, I reinvented fruitcake for The Brooklyn Holiday Experiment and with great results - the judges awarded it third place.  Redemption for fruitcake! 

This was my fifth Brooklyn Food Experiment (I've previously done Beer, Chocolate, Brunch, and Roots) and, as always, it was a blast.  We were back at The Bell House this time and there were many familiar faces, which is part of why I enjoy doing these events - I know I'm up against some great chefs and, at this point, I've talked to and gotten to know many of them.

The theme was announced a little more than a month before the event and I immediately signed up - there was no way I was missing this one.  When I think holidays, I think Christmastime.  Sure, Thanksgiving counts as being part of the holiday season, but given that the event was in December, I was really feeling the Christmastime theme.  I had contemplated changing things up and making something savory, but I've learned that it's very difficult for a vegetarian dish to compete against meat dishes, especially ones containing pork or bacon (which many people make because apparently pork is delicious), so I stuck with dessert.  And there's one dessert to me that screams holidays and Christmastime: fruitcake.

But fruitcake usually sucks.  So I was going to make it not suck.  How?  By taking everything that's in it and poured onto it - brandy-soaked fruits, nuts, and bourbon - and taking it out of the cake and putting it on top and in between layers of moist, tender spice cake.  Somehow this idea came to me very easily and I quickly decided on the following components'
  • Base: Gingerbread spice cake  - this is not a standard fruitcake base, but gingerbread is very representative of the holiday season, and since the cake wouldn't have anything embedded in it, it would need to be a good cake that could also hold its own without any accoutrements.  I went with a version rich with molasses, brown sugar, lots of ginger (both freshly grated and powdered), cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and star anise.  I got lucky with my first attempt - it was really moist and had a great flavor so I stuck with that recipe, saving me much testing.
  • Filling: brandy-soaked dried fruits mixed with a fresh cranberry compote - brandy-soaked dried fruits are critical to fruitcake so they needed to be included in my revamped version.  Instead of going in the cake, they would serve as the filling between the two layers.  Because they were being used as a filling, I chopped the fruits fine enough to not need serious chewing, but big enough to have texture and distinctive fruit flavors.  The chopped fruits sat in a brandy bath overnight to get nice and boozy - which fruitcake definitely needs to be.  However, I needed something to bind the mixture together, so I went with a fresh cranberry compote.  I guess it brought in a bit of Thanskgiving, but the real reason for its use was to give the filling a jammy consistency and also a bit of tartness to offset all the sugar.
  • Frosting: brown sugar-bourbon buttercream - I love brown sugar buttercream with spicy, rich cakes, as it lends far more flavor than a plain white sugar buttercream (which has its utility, for sure, but isn't the right frosting for every cake).  And because fruitcake is often soaked with bourbon, a whole lot of it was going to go into the frosting - not enough to taste strongly of alcohol, but enough to provide a kick of flavor (and, ok, a bit of a punch).
  • Garnish/crunch: maple-candied pecans - fruitcake has nuts in it, so this was a no-brainer.  Instead of plain old toasted pecans, I toasted them and then coated them with reduced maple syrup.  Yum.
As for presentation, I decided that this would in no way be incarnated as a cupcake.  NO.  To get around that, I decided to bake the sheet in thin layers (in half sheet pans) and then cut out small rounds, which I would sandwich together (with the compote in the middle) and then top off with frosting and a pecan - a little cakelet, if you will.

So with a plan in place, I started baking on Saturday afternoon.  For some reason I thought I had four half sheet pans when in fact I only have three.  Which made making two sheets at a time in rapid succession a bit of a pain in the ass and which subsequently really slowed me down and had me up later than I wanted to be.  So much for my plan.  In any event, I baked most of the cakes on Saturday and made the brandied fruits and left the cranberry compote, a couple of cake layers, and frosting for Sunday.  I put Matt to work (he usually just does logistics) and had him cut out cake rounds (SEVEN HUNDRED of them because I wanted to make 350 two-layer cakelets) while I made the compote and frostings.  After much rapid filling and piping (and a nip of bourbon or two), we were armed with five large aluminum trays filled with teeny tiny cakes and on our way to The Bell House (shout out to my awesome parents who came over early to drive us there).

Many hours of serving and shouting the same thing over and over again (I admit there were a few times I just pointed at my sign because I was tired of shouting - but only when the person obviously didn't want to hear my spiel), the winners were announced, and fruitcake was finally redeemed.

Photo from The Food Experiments' Flickr
Here's to redemption for a much-maligned dessert!  And perhaps flipped fruitcake can make its way into your holiday repertoire.

Oh!  I almost forgot, here are links to a few recaps and photo sets


Frosty's Flipped Fruitcake
makes a two-layer 9" cake

Gingerbread Five-Spice Cake
makes two 9" cake layers

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 stick (6 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
2 extra large eggs, room temperature
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
3/4 cup hot water
2/3 cup light molasses

Heat oven to 350 F.  Lightly grease two 9" baking pans,  line with parchment, then grease and flour.  Set the pans aside.

Add the flour, baking soda, ginger, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves to a large bowl and whisk well to combine and break up any lumps.  Set aside.

Add the butter and sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream on medium speed until very light and fluffy, 3-4 minutes.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl between each addition.

In the meantime, whisk together the water and molasses and set aside.

After both eggs have been added, add 1/3 of the flour mixture and mix on low speed until just combined.  Add half of the molasses mixture and mix on low speed until just combined.  Repeat, ending with the flour.  Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl between each addition.

Distribute the batter between the two pans and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25-30 minutes.  Let the cakes cool in the pans until warm, then turn out onto cooling racks and let the cakes completely cool.


Brandied Candied Fruit Compote
makes 1 1/2 cups

4 oz (1/2 cup) dried apricots
4 oz (1/2 cup) dried figs
2 oz (1/4 cup) dried cherries
1/3 cup brandy
1 cup fresh cranberries
1 tablespoon light brown sugar

Coarsely chop the dried apricots, figs, and cherries and place in a medium bowl. Pour the brandy over the chopped fruit and mix well.  Cover with a plate or plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature overnight.

The next day, put the cranberries and light brown sugar in a medium saucepan along with 1/2 cup water.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer until the cranberries have broken down, about 15 minutes.  Turn off the heat and add the brandy-fruit mixture.  Let the mixture cool to room temperature.

Bourbon Brown Sugar Buttercream
makes about 3 cups - enough to frost a two-layer cake

4 large egg whites
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened but still cool
1 tablespoon molasses
2 tablespoons bourbon

Follow my method for Swiss Meringue Buttercream.  After all the butter is incorporated, add the molasses and mix to combine, then add the bourbon and mix until fully incorporated.


Maple-Candied Pecans
makes 1/2 cup

1/2 cup pecan halves
2 tablespoons Grade B maple syrup
Pinch of sea salt

Heat oven to 350 F.  Toast the pecans until fragrant, about 15 minutes.  Transfer to a plate to cool.

Line a baking sheet with lightly greased aluminum foil or parchment paper and set aside.

Heat the maple syrup in a small saucepan set over medium heat.   When it starts to bubble, add the pecans and toss well to coat, stirring often until the mixture is very thick.   Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking sheet and, working quickly, spread out to separate the nuts.  Sprinkle the salt over the nuts and let cool completely, about 1 hour.  Separate the nuts and store in an airtight container until needed.


Assemble the cake

Transfer one cake layer to a serving plate or cake round.  Level the top of the cake, then spread with approximately 2/3 cup of the frosting.  Top with all of the fruit compote, then place the second layer on top.  Spread a very thin coat of frosting over the top and sides of the cake and place the cake in the refrigerator to set (this is the crumb coat) - this will take about 30 minutes.  Spread the remaining frosting over the cake, then decorate with the candied pecans.

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