Get soaking: Now’s the time to start those fruitcakes

Panama Fruitcake
Panama Fruitcake for The Washington Post

Fruitcake is generally the butt of seasonal jokes about its density and unpopularity. It is almost comically heavy — all that dried fruit bound by a soupçon of cake batter, redolent with spices, brandy and rum. But if you forget that it’s a fruitcake, it just smells like Christmas.

Because fruitcake becomes more flavorful with age, fall is the time to start making it. In this version, from Yadira Stamp, who owns a Panamanian restaurant in Washington D.C., the fruit needs to soak first for at least 30 days in a combination of brandy, dark rum and port, although she also has developed a quick method for infusing the flavor into the fruit.

But what about that aged cake; is it safe to eat when it has been sitting around awhile?

USDA guidelines state that fruitcake can be stored for one month at room temperature, six months in the refrigerator and a year in the freezer. A food safety researcher at North Carolina State University said in 2014 that the low moisture content of dried and candied fruits, plus the preserving properties of alcohol, could make fruitcake shelf-stable for at least several months.

Panama Fruitcake

16 servings

The fruit for this rich, traditional Caribbean cake needs time to soak in a mixture of rum, brandy and port, so start it now for December eating. You’ll need a 9-inch round cake pan with sides at least 2 inches high. Liquid burnt sugar, which tastes like a cross between molasses and caramel, can be purchased online or at Caribbean grocery stores.

Make ahead: The fruit should soak for at least 30 days. (Or follow quick-soak directions; see Notes below.) The cake can be wrapped and stored in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months (with periodic brushing; see below) or frozen for up to 6 months.

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/3 teaspoon baking soda

2/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

3/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons water

3/4 teaspoon liquid burnt sugar (see headnote)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 cups prepared fruits (see NOTE)

1/2 cup mincemeat (with brandy; see headnote)

2 tablespoons rum, or more for long-term storage (see headnote)

2 tablespoons brandy, or more for long-term storage (see headnote)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease the pan with baker’s spray, then line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and salt onto a sheet of parchment or wax paper.

Combine the butter, shortening and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until light and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Whisk the eggs in a separate bowl until evenly combined, adding the water gradually until well incorporated. Whisk in the liquid burnt sugar and vanilla extract.

Add the egg mixture to the butter-sugar mixture in the mixer bowl, then fold in the prepared fruits and their liquid, plus the mincemeat; this may be best to do by hand, because the mixture can be heavy and could potentially burn out the mixer motor. Add the flour mixture a quarter-cup at a time, combining thoroughly. A spoon should be able to stand up in the middle of the batter.

Spoon the batter into the cake pan and smooth the surface. Bake (middle rack) for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean; if that does not happen, reduce the temperature to 300 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Let the cake cool in its pan for 1 hour.

Use a toothpick or wooden skewer to poke several holes in the top of the cake, then mix the rum and brandy together and pour on top of the cake. Remove the cake from the pan; if not serving right away, wrap the cake tightly in aluminum foil or plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 1 week, brushing the top of the cake with 2 teaspoons of rum or brandy once each week. The cake can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place; brushing the top of the cake with 2 teaspoons of brandy or rum once a week, to help keep it moist, for up to 6 weeks..

NOTE: To make the prepared fruits, combine 1 1/4 cups finely chopped Paradise Extra Fancy Fruit Cake Mix (candied fruits), 1 1/4 cups raisins, 1/2 cup currants, 1/4 cup rum, 2 tablespoons brandy and 2 tablespoons port in an airtight container. Let the fruits soak for at least 30 days. If unable to soak for a long period, place all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 15 minutes. Let cool to room temperature. This quick-cook mixture can be placed in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks, until ready to use.

Nutrition per serving: 260 calories, 2 g protein, 48 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 90 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 34 g sugar

From Yadira Stamp, chef-owner of Esencias Panameñas in D.C.

Georgia Fruitcake

16 to 20 servings (makes 2 loaf pan cakes)

A blend of dried peaches and pecans gives this cake a sweet and nutty balance, while the addition of both peach nectar and peach brandy puts the emphasis on Georgia’s beloved fruit. Use orange blossom honey to amp up the floral note of the candied orange peel.

You’ll need two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans.

Make ahead: The cakes can be made several weeks in advance, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in a cool, dark place. Unwrap to brush their tops once a week with a teaspoon or two of peach brandy.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pans

2 cups flour, plus more for the pans

1 cup candied orange peel, chopped

2 cups dried peaches, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3/4 cup peach brandy, plus more for long-term storage (see headnote)

5 1/2 cups chopped pecans

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 cup packed light brown sugar

5 large eggs

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup peach nectar

3 dried orange wheels, cut into half-moons (optional)

Lightly grease the loaf pans with butter and dust them with flour, then line the pans with parchment paper.

Combine the orange peel and dried peaches in a medium saucepan with 1/4 cup of the peach brandy and toss well to coat; cook over low heat for 15 minutes, then let cool to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Add the pecans and 1/2 cup of the flour to the fruit mixture and toss to coat evenly. Sift the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour together with the baking powder, salt, cinnamon, allspice and ginger onto a sheet of parchment or wax paper.

Combine the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until light and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On low speed, add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition. Stop to scrape down the bowl. Add the honey, cream, peach nectar and the flour-baking powder mixture; beat on low speed until well incorporated. Remove the bowl from the mixer; fold in the fruit and nut mixture until evenly distributed.

Divide the batter evenly between the loaf pans, smoothing the surfaces. Decorate each one with 3 orange wheels, if using. Bake (middle rack) for 1 1/2 hours, then check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center. If it does not come out clean, continue to bake, checking every 5 minutes, until the toothpick does come out clean.

Transfer the cakes (in their pans) to a wire rack. Use a toothpick or wooden skewer to poke several holes in the tops, then gradually pour the remaining brandy (1/4 cup each) over each one. Let cool for 1 hour, then remove the cakes from their pans and continue to cool on the racks to room temperature. Serve, or wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store in a cool, dry place (not refrigerated) for up to several weeks (see headnote directions for keeping them moist for long-term storage).

Nutrition per serving (based on 20): 490 calories, 6 g protein, 48 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 25 g sugar

Adapted from a recipe by Georgia chef Anne Sterling, by cookbook author Nathalie Dupree.