Every year, during the school holidays, we packed and dragged our bags to visit my mum's family across the causeway. She was born and grew up in a little rural village in Malacca. My grandparents had a wooden house on stilts and brought up 9 children on my grandfather's single income as a rubber-tapper. Like us, they had humble means and led simple lives. But we, coming from Singapore, were considered city folks and for some reason, were treated as special. Every time, we drove into the village in a rented car, we were welcomed with much fanfair. My grandmother and aunties would pull us for hugs as we kissed their hands in the traditional Malay way. There was much chattering about how we looked, how much we had grown and whether we were too thin or gained weight. I was always a little embarrassed but this was a mere prelude to the attention they would shower us throughout the visit.
To match the welcome, my mum would pull out treats and carefully wrapped food out of plastic bags. Among the stash were two cakes that took a delicate hand and watchful eyes to make. One of the cakes would be the infamous Malay kek lapis (layered cake) - the one which requires you to pour no more than a ¼ inch layer of batter, each layer baked for 2 minutes or less, until golden before the next layer is filled. I love that cake - all the butter and spice equals luxury in a bite. And then there is the fruit cake. My mum told me that a fruitcake is more about the fruits and nuts than cake. It may have been about abundance, but I didn't like it at all. The cake itself was delicious - I was happy with walnuts, I could tolerate raisins, but I didn't like the fruits - glazed cherries, candied pineapples and dried apricots. After my first bite, I didn't care if I never took another from a fruit cake again.
But as it turns out, my husband loves fruit cake. During sahur (the morning meal during Ramadan), S has cereal and milk every meal - it's the easiest to prepare at 4 a.m. He deserved something more. SoI did the unthinkable and made a fruit cake so that he had options. While waiting for my mum to wake up in her time zone, I searched online to get inspired. I really liked Kevin's (of Closet Cooking) recipe - it looked rich and moist. When I finally spoke to my mum, she rattled off whatever she could remember since she hasn't made fruit cakes for more than 10 years. They didn't have molasses so to brown the cake, they "burnt" the sugar. She steamed her cake, not bake. To prevent the fruits and nuts from sinking due to the long steaming time (3-4 hours), she said I should coat the fruits and nuts with flour.
So I took her basic recipe and decided to tweak it. I may have gone too far because I hardly recognize it. I have been using whole wheat pastry flour and was very happy with the results. I upped her use of 1 cup flour to 1½ cup because I wanted more cake. I wasn't worried for about the use of whole flour and the liquid ratio because I was planning to use a natural liquid sweeteners - agave. I wasn't sure I could burn sugar right so I used blackstrap molasses. For the nuts and fruits - walnuts and raisins were pantry staples, so that was easy. I also had dried figs and dates from previous recipes and Trader Joe's orange flavored cranberries which we use in salads. There were a few dried apricots but I wasn't sure if they were enough, so I bought more. I chanced upon these organic dried apricots that were not that bright shade of yellowy-orange. They were a dark brown because they hadn't been treated with sulphur dioxide. See the picture above to compare. Despite its looks, I like the taste of the organic apricots - they were less tough than the regular ones that I am used to. When you pour the batter in loaf pans, spread it level. I didn't do it for one of the pans and the cake came out uneven. I liked using 2 smaller loaf pans, so that each slice did not produce too big a piece. I also soaked cheese cloths in orange juice (yes, instead of brandy) and wrapped the fruit cakes in them for about 5 days. See the one on the right below? I, um, cut a slice to taste before taking the picture. The cake was moist despite the use of whole wheat flour. I think this fruit cake may have made me a convert, but more importantly, S loves it.
Fruit cake recipe
1½ cup + 2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup butter (1 stick)
5 tablespoons agave
1 tablespoon molasses
½ teaspoon cinnamon powder
½ teaspoon ginger powder
½ teaspoon allspice powder
1¼ cup walnuts
1 cup cranberries
1 cup dates
¾ cup raisins
½ cup apricots
½ cup dried figs
½ cup orange juice (optional)
1. Heat the oven to 275°F with a pan of hot water on the lowest shelf of the oven. Line 2 8" by 4" loaf pans or 1 8" by 8" loaf pan with parchment paper or foil. All ingredients should be at room temperature.
2. Mix the dried fruits and nuts, and dredge them in the 2 tablespoons of flour. Combine the flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
3. Cream the butter in a mixer and add one egg at a time, followed by the agave and molasses. Mix in the flour mixture and then stir in the dried fruits and nuts.
4. Pour the batter into the pan/s. Bake for 2 hours. Cake is ready when a cake tester comes out clean.
5. Optional: Soak 2 cheese cloths in orange juice and wrap around each cake. Re-soak the cheesecloth after 2 days. Cake is ready to eat after 4 days.