’Tis the season for pulling out those tried-and-true family dessert recipes

for The Brooklyn Paper

Even the most reticent cook finds himself drawn to the kitchen during the holiday season. It’s time to bring out the cookie cutters and colored sugars, the family gingerbread and fruitcake recipes. Traditions vary from country to country and family to family with most families establishing their own traditions inspired by both their tastes and their ancestry.

In the Jewish tradition, fried desserts are the Hanukkah specialty. Hanukkah commemorates the night there was only enough sacred oil to light one of the menorah candles, and a miracle produced enough for eight nights. The oil used for this frying also relates to the end of the olive pressing at this time of year, according to Joan Nathan, author of "The Jewish Holiday Baker."

Israeli sufganiyot are raised jelly doughnuts and were probably adapted from the Greek loukomades - deep-fried puffs dipped in honey or sprinkled with powdered sugar, according to Nathan. Often, after the traditional latkes (potato pancakes) served at Hanukkah, many Jewish families choose to serve something lighter than a fried dish for dessert, like fruit and cookies.

Almost every nationality has a Christmas cookie. Here, the basic sugar cookie cut into fanciful shapes with cookie cutters and decorated with colored sugars and icing, is probably the most popular. Gingerbread is also a favorite to make with cookie cutters as well as for building houses decorated with candy and icing.

Gingerbread dates back to the Middle Ages when fair maidens would present intricately shaped and decorated cookies as a favor to knights going into tournaments. Today, in this country especially, gingerbread can also be a dark, moist cake flavored with molasses, ginger and other spices and often topped with lemon sauce or whipped cream.

Molded cookies also make lovely holiday treats. Shortbread, the delectably buttery Scottish specialty, takes beautifully to molds, as do the German anise-flavored springerle (spring-uhr-lee). French sable ("sand") cookies are another take on the sugar cookie though they are more often shaped with cutters than molded. For an extra-special Christmas effect, stained-glass cookies, made with crushed rock candy inserted into openings in sugar cookies, have the end result of a stained glass window and make fun holiday gifts.

In France, the buche de Noel, or yule log, is a heavenly, rolled chocolate cake filled with whipped cream and decorated with chocolate icing. French bakeries compete for the most beautiful buche, adorning them with meringue mushrooms, holly and gnomes made of icing.

The British, of course, have their plum pudding and fruitcake - the sort of heavy, rich desserts that go with their bleak, winter climate. Plum pudding, traditionally made with suet, dried currants, raisins, almonds and spices is served with hard sauce, a combination of butter, sugar and either brandy, rum or whiskey, and is served flaming for extra-special effect. Often charms are put in the pudding - a babydoll, a heart, a bride - representing, for those who find them in their portion, predictions for the coming year.

A Wilkinson tradition

Everyone is familiar with the old joke about the solitary fruitcake that makes the rounds from house to house at Christmas and goes untouched, so undesirable that no one is tempted by it. Anyone who buys into that story hasn’t tasted the real thing.

My family had a longstanding commitment to fruitcake beginning in the fall when my mother would start frantically gathering dried fruit and nuts with the gut-level instincts of a squirrel. After my mother died, my husband, Ken, took over making the family fruitcakes. Being English, Ken’s fruitcake heritage runs deep. He had his own recollections of his mother’s fruitcake - the English version, covered in marzipan and Royal Icing.

So, with the combined wisdom of two family traditions under his belt, Ken took on fruitcake with his usual verve. Ken had acquired excellent culinary skills as a very young man in the British merchant marine, but as a result of that training, he has a tendency to cook in huge quantities. Every year, Ken makes 20 to 30 fruitcakes to give away as gifts, and every year the process stars sometime in early November.

After the massive nut and fruit purchase comes the soaking of the fruit. He borrows an enormous pot from a restaurateur friend and soaks the fruit in dark Myers’s Rum for a couple of weeks. That distinctly rich and engaging scent permeates the house from top to bottom until the Sunday Ken sets aside for making the cakes.

At some point, Ken started to combine making fruitcake with watching football, and the whoops and yells of that activity punctuated the sounds and smells of cooking, making it an annual ritual. One year, he became so much more involved in a football game than his fruitcake that he failed to notice our golden retriever in the kitchen. Enticed there by the intoxicating aroma from the oven and the lack of supervision, the dog proceeded to get on the counter and polish off a good number of cakes before being discovered by an irate Ken.

Needless to say, the dog, shamed for his misdemeanor and suffering from the aftereffects of his gluttony, was banished to the outdoors for many days, and Ken has since kept a closer eye on his cakes.

Like fine wines, Ken’s fruitcakes are remembered according to their distinctive qualities and years. "This reminds me of the ’89, so dark and moist," I remember overhearing one friend comment to another.

Sure enough, most of our friends have indeed become followers. Ken has managed to convert even the most avid fruitcake hater, and I haven’t heard the joke about the lone, abandoned fruitcake in years.


Dark fruitcake

Fruitcakes come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and recipes can easily be adapted to suit individual needs. For those who like the dark, moist variety, Ken’s recipe is perfection. For a lighter cake, replace the figs and raisins with golden raisins and dried apricots; honey can be substituted for dark molasses. The spice level can also be adjusted to meet personal tastes.

3/4 cup chopped dried pears
3/4 cup chopped dried peaches
3/4 cup chopped dried figs
3/4 cup chopped dried dates
2/3 cup currants
15 oz. raisins
1 1/2 cup dark rum or cognac
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
4 oz. chopped candied fruit peel (orange, grapefruit, lemon or mixture)
1/4 cup chopped candied ginger
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup chopped almonds
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
5 eggs
1/2 cup currant jelly
1/2 cup molasses
1/4 cup strong coffee

Soak dried fruit, currants and raisins overnight in 1 cup dark rum or cognac, stirring occasionally. Drain fruit.

Grease 10-inch tube pan and 8-inch by 4-inch by 2-inch loaf pan. Line bottom and sides of pans with brown paper to prevent over-browning; grease paper.

In bowl, combine flour, salt, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder, allspice, nutmeg and cloves. Add fruit, candied peel, candied ginger, pecans and almonds; mix well.

In mixing bowl, beat butter with electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add brown sugar and beat until well combined. Add eggs, jelly and molasses and mix thoroughly.

Stir dry ingredients alternately into butter mixture with coffee and the remaining 1/2-cup rum or cognac.

Divide batter between prepared pans. Bake in 300-degree oven for 1 3/4 to 2 hours or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. (After one hour, cover pans loosely with foil; this will keep cakes from over-browning.)

Cool in pans on rack. Remove from pans. Wrap cakes in rum- or cognac-soaked cheesecloth. Overwrap with foil. Store in cool, dry place for two to eight weeks to mellow flavors. Re-moisten cheesecloth about once a week or as needed.

Makes one 8-inch by 4-inch loaf and one 10-inch tube cake.

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