Trying to replicate my mother’s fruitcake

In Rome the shops and markets are full of fruit cakes, as well as nuts and dried fruits for making fruit cakes: pangiallo, panpepato, panforte (the latter is from Siena). There are towers of pandoro and panettone in the supermarkets, along with bastardized panettone versions with limoncello cream or chocolate filling. I already bought a couple classic panettone, as they are really nice for making bread and butter pudding, which my husband does very well. However, what my husband really does not like is dried fruit. His mother still makes the traditional English Christmas cake each year, fed for weeks with brandy and decorated right before Christmas with marzipan and royal icing. I quite enjoy it, in small slices, and it lasts for ages. Fruitcake is however not something I ever make. But this year, with no traveling, there is lots of time to bake, and my mother kindly sent her recipe. A little more austere, and not covered, but very good. This cake is an adaptation of that. Start the day before baking by soaking the fruit.

Italian version of my mother’s fruitcake (approximately – makes two loaves

Fruit: 1 kilo of dried fruit of your choice. I used dried figs, prunes, dried apricots, dates, raisins and dried cranberries. To soak: 300 ml whisky and orange juice, 50/50. Or just orange juice, if you prefer.

350 g butter
250 g brown sugar
110 g white sugar
5 eggs
200 g orange marmalade
400g white wheat flour (I used 00)
2 tsp baking powder
150 g hazelnuts
2 tsp pain d’epices (mixed spices: allspice, ginger, cinnamon)

Day before: Chop fruit, removing any stones or pits, and soak overnight in liquids. I used orange juice and some mystery homemade pear liqueur, which is probably spiced pear vodka from this Diana Henry recipe, Make sure all ingredients for next day are at room temperature.
Next day: Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in rest of ingredients. Line base of loaf tins with baking parchment, butter sides. Divide between loaf tins. Bake at 175C for 70 minutes. Maybe a little longer needed. Cool well before slicing.

.I was quite pleased with this! It should make two long loaves, I made two medium and two small ones, not very tall. A little crumbly, and not quite the pristine thin fruit-crusted cake of my mother, but after a night in the fridge they are easier to slice and they taste right. I suppose I could poke some holes and spoon over more pear liqueur, but this is nice as it is. They will keep for ages in the fridge, wrapped in foil. I am also handing out some small pieces to friends, Time to decorate our tiny plastic tree and enjoy some advent spirit.

Speaking of Christmas spirit, I was out for a quick walk the other night to get some air. After lockdown this spring, that is a luxury not to take for granted. The piazza up the road was heaving with excited teenagers, which usually means I go the other way. (They are perfectly civil here, just often in groups and possibly contagious.) Two small red AS Roma trucks were parked there, and assorted young men were putting on Santa hats. It was a charity event, the Roma footballers seem to be supporting the Comunità di Sant’Egidio in handing out masks and food to the elderly. Not I would recognize any of the players, but the starstruck teenagers were thrilled.

August plum jam

I am so pleased that cooler weather is here. Today the rain is bucketing down again in Rome, but I have no complaints after the long, dry summer here. I am reading cookbooks and thinking what about what to cook. It was hard moving back in February, going into two months of lockdown in March, adapting to working from home and being worried about our mortgage and the pandemic. Now suddenly it feels like a shift in gears has kicked in, and life is more manageable. Which is nice. We had a couple small trips away this months (Arezzo, and Sperlonga) which really helped. More to follow on those.

Rome was very, very quiet this August. Empty streets, quiet nights, and more shops closed for longer. No wonder, after the months of lockdown and uncertainty. The border closures have been stressful for us, as for many. It’s been hard not going home this summer, but the fear of bringing contagion back to our parents remains. I miss the Norwegian summer and cool green forests, picking blueberries with family, and the odd spot of jam-making. Making this plum jam on a warm day in August was a sweaty but comforting small step to feel connected..

August Plum jam

2 kg yellow plums (with a few fresh apricots thrown in)
100 ml water
600 gr sugar
70 gr dry fruit pectin (a vintage sachet from 2012…)

This is pretty flexible as recipes go, it depends on the plums you have. I added some apricots that were lurking in the fridge, which gave the jam an even nicer golden hue.

Wash the plums, chop in two and remove the pits. This is easy if the plums are ripe. Otherwise, if the plums are a little hard, you can cook them and fish out the pits later. Use a wide saucepan if you have one. You will not need to add much water if the plums are soft. Cook the plums gently in a little water for 8-10 minutes, stirring now and then until the plums are cooked through and collapsed to be jam-like.

While the jam cooks, sterilize your jam jars. I do that in a saucepan with boiling water, jars and lids.

Add sugar and pectin to jam, and bring to the boil again until the sugar and pectin have dissolved. Then take jam off the heat and carefully fill the jars with jam, keeping the lip if the jar clean, and seal swiftly (this will all be quite hot). Set jars upside down to cool. Store jars cool and dark.

Second time success: apple-cinnamon Swiss roll

img_20200705_121658_4It’s July already! Where has this year gone? Four months working from home, I thought I’d be baking and watching box sets and finally trying Yoga With Adrienne.  No, it’s actually been really busy workwise, in  a good way, with lots of weekend projects in the flat after 4 years away. Italy is doing pretty well now contagion-wise, but we wear masks when we go outside and are generally careful. However, it’s been really nice to see a few friends now and then, with the occasional dinner – open windows, lots of fresh air, no touching.

I even took the metro last week, to collect a long-awaited ID card. Hardly anyone there, and clear signage on blocked seats where it is forbidden to sit, to maintain distance. More borders are opening in Europe, but we have no international travel planned. A long warm Roman summer will be fine – and after Accra, it is not that hot!

Rome

Back to the cake. I started this cake a few days ago, when friends came over for a socially distanced pizza dinner. Some sad apples were malingering in the fridge, but any apple cake that requires an hour in the oven is clearly not going to happen when it’s 33C in a Roman July. But a Swiss roll with homemade applesauce, 5 minutes of baking while the oven was heating anyway for pizza… perfect! Unless you fold laundry in those critical five minutes and come back just a little too late, to find the cake burned beyond redemption.. Oh well – the guests had cold watermelon for dessert, and better luck next time. Sad waste of food, though. This time I paid better attention.

Apple-cinnamon Swiss roll, second attempt
3 eggs
130 grammes of sugar
2 tsp baking powder
115 grammes all-purpose flour

Filling:
300 ml applesauce
2 tsp or so of cinnamon

I made the applesauce by peeling and coring 4 medium apples, dicing the apples and cooking them with 100 ml water until soft enough to mash with a potato masher. No added sugar.

Heat oven to 250C. Prepare a baking sheet with baking paper. Prepare a clean cotton kitchen towel with a little sugar sprinkled on. Whisk eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Fold in baking powder and flour with a spatula. Spread this out evenly on the baking paper, and bake in middle of the oven for five minutes, until golden brown. Watch the cake, it is very thin and can easily burn.

When cake is lightly golden, turn it onto the kitchen towel upside down, and peel off the baking paper. While cake is still warm, spread on apple sauce and sprinkle on a little cinnamon, or jam of your choice. Then roll the cake together from the longest side, using the towel to lift the cake evenly so it does not crack. (If it does crack, it will still be delicious.)

 

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Here, I rolled from the long horizontal edge. Cool before slicing.

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Lots left for the next few days. Maybe I’ll make another with peaches and apricots, I bought too many and do not want to waste any.

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Hope you all are safe and can enjoy a little summer too. Have a nice weekend.