Shiny, happy fruitcake 

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So good, you won't even know it's fruitcake: panettone, rife with fruit, but never cloying. (Photo by Julie Barnett)

Embrace the glowing emerald-green cherries

Is there any dessert more maligned than the holiday fruitcake? Yet, even as they tell their jokes and chortle like insiders, many people secretly love a fruitcake. Some feign disgust even as they gobble it up, claiming to do so purely out of politeness. Others who are bolder may admit to making it in some higher form: Oh, they might say, I have a recipe that is actually quite lovely.

Why must we hide our love? Well, it's hard for any self-respecting gourmet to openly embrace a comestible riddled with glowing emerald-green cherries. A recent trip to Central Market revealed a baking aisle well-stocked and a bit sticky with the brilliant candied fruits of tradition: awe-inspiring shelf-life, but not necessarily appetizing. Would it be blasphemy to mention that it's possible, and not actually difficult, to make your own candied fruit with more flavor and less, uh, festive colors?

According to food anthropologists, sweetmeats have been around since the Middle Ages, when early epicureans discovered they could preserve fruits, flowers, nuts, and seeds for several seasons simply by drenching them in honey. Today, we use sugar, but the premise is basically the same.

The idea is to cook the fruit - ginger, kumquat, cherries, apricot, pineapple, citron, lemon, orange, or grapefruit - in water or thin syrup that can penetrate its skin and cells. Once the fruit is tender, it is dropped in heavier syrup, which soaks in where the lighter fluid has paved the way, eventually replacing the water content of the fruit with sugar and giving the fruit its lacquer coating.

It's hard for any self-respecting gourmet to openly embrace a comestible riddled with glowing emerald-green cherries.
For the novice, a good starting place is candied citrus peel, which does not require any quick moves or even a candy thermometer. Here's how you do it:

Peel two grapefruits or three oranges, citrons, or lemons. Scrape the bitter pith from the peels and discard, unless you like it a little chewy, in which case you may want to leave a small amount. Grate the peel very slightly to release bitter oil from the cells, cut it into narrow strips, cover in cold water and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and repeat 3-5 times until tender. Prepare sugar syrup by combining 1/4 cup of water with a 1/2 cup of sugar for each cup of fruit, add the peel and simmer until it is translucent and shiny. Drain off the excess sugar and dry.

The final product, as you might imagine, is a very moist and flavorful zesty-sweet candy, vastly different from the pale citron usually found in grocery stores, which has little or no flavor beyond sweet. Your citrus peel can be dipped in chocolate, eaten straight, or chopped up in fruitcakes of all manner. It is particularly nice in a Panettone.

Panettone is the lighter Italian cousin to the dense English fruitcake. Made with several eggs, it is rich, but not too heavy or sweet. It is delicious straight, toasted with butter, or dipped in egg for a rather extravagant French toast. This recipe, adapted from the Joy of Cooking, is baked in 1-pound coffee tins which have the dual benefit of adding character - should you decide to give the cake as a gift - and creating ridges in the cake for easy slicing. No one has ever been embarrassed by a Panettone.

Panettone

Combine and let stand for 4 minutes:
1 c 105- to 115-degree water
2 packages active dry yeast

Sift and stir in:
1 c all-purpose flour

Cover this sponge and let rise about 30 minutes in a warm place.

In a separate bowl, beat until soft:
1/2 c butter
Add gradually and blend until light and creamy:
1/2 c sifted sugar
Beat in, one at a time:
2 to 3 eggs
Add:
1 t salt
2 t grated lemon rind

Beat in the sponge. Sift and beat in gradually:
3 1/2 c all-purpose flour

Beat the dough for 5 minutes more (or knead, if you don't have a strong enough mixer). Add:
1 c sweetmeats, inc. any combination of candied citron, orange, lemon, pineapple, ginger, or golden raisins
1 c broken nutmeats

Cover the bowl with a cloth and let the dough rise about 2 hours, or until almost doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Punch down, divide, and place in 2 greased 1-pound coffee cans and let rise for a 1/2 hour. Lightly brush tops with melted butter. Bake for 1/2 hour, or until golden brown.

By Susan Pagani


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