Along the Grapevine


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A Forager’s Dark Fruit Cake (Vegan & GF)

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The traditional, rich, dark Christmas cake seems to be out of fashion these days. A good one, if you can find it, is very expensive, and a home-made one requires more time and planning than many people want to put into their holiday baking. If you think of it not so much as cake, but of a great selection of dried fruit and nuts flavoured with spice and brandy or rum, you might reconsider this as an essential part of the holiday fare. It is best, if you decide to make one, to make it early enough that it has time to age, preferably wrapped in a liquor soaked cloth for a few weeks. So, being a bit of a traditionalist, I decided to make one batch and share the recipe with at Fiesta Friday #43.

Christmas cakes have evolved over the last decades – an evolution that I sometimes find discouraging. Artificially coloured fruits and berries and a batter that is mediocre have become the norm. I have therefore used only good quality fruit, some of it foraged from my own garden, freshly ground spices and enough brandy to make it illegal for minors to eat it. It is a cake my ancestors would recognize, and they wouldn’t even notice that it is vegan and gluten-free. The recipe can be altered to use a wheat flour and butter instead of the chestnut flour and coconut oil I used, and adding eggs wouldn’t hurt it either, but definitely not necessary. I have given the measurements for what I used, but the variety of fruits and nuts can be altered to suit your taste and what you have on hand as long as you stick to the same measurements.  I wanted to use my wild apples, crabapples and pears, but any dried fruit is fine – preferably organic.

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There is only enough batter in this cake to hold together the fruits and nuts. I added no sugar, but with the sweetness of the other ingredients, you will not find it lacking. Not sure if this recipe would work at all, I made a few small cupcake forms just to try them out. They will improve with aging in texture and taste, but they held together fine, and the flavour was exactly what I was aiming for.

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A Forager's Dark Fruit Cake


Ingredients

(fruit and nut mixture)

2 cups dark raisins

1 cup light raisins

1 cup dried cranberries

1 cup dried cherries

1/2 cup dried mulberries

1 cup dried apples

1 cup dried pears

1 cup candied ginger

1 cup dried apricots

1 cup dried dates

2 cups nuts (I used almonds and pecans)

1/3 cup chestnut flour

(batter)

1 1/3 cup chestnut flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ground cloves

1/2 tsp mace

1/2 tsp nutmeg

2 Tbsp ground chia (or flax) seeds

1 cup coconut oil, melted

1/3 cup blackstrap molasses

3/4 cup fruit preserve or jam

3/4 cup brandy (or rum or apple juice)

Method

Chop the fruit and nuts and place in a very large bowl or cooking pot. You will need lots of room to stir the mixture when the other ingredients are added. Cover with the 1/3 cup of flour and mix until all the fruit is coated. If there are any large chunks of fruit, break them up into smaller pieces.

Mix the rest of the dry ingredients in another bowl.

In a smaller bowl, mix the oil, brandy, fruit preserve and molasses.

Add the dry ingredients to the fruit mixture, and when well combined mix in the wet ingredients. Stir well making sure there are no dry bits left. The batter will be very thick, but it should stick together.

Line your tins with greased parchment paper and spoon batter into them. Press down with the back of a spoon and smooth the top, making sure there are no air pockets.

Place a pan of water in the bottom of the oven and bake the cake(s) at 275 F.

The cooking time was 1 1/2 hours for the twelve cupcakes, and 2 hours for the 8 inch loaf and 8 inch round springform pan. If you make one large cake, you will need to bake it for about 2 1/2 hours. To check for doneness, it should be dry on top and spring back when you press on it.

Remove the cakes from the pans and allow to cool. If you like, you can wrap them in a liquor soaked cheesecloth, then wrap them again in parchment paper or plastic wrap, and store them in an airtight container. When the cheesecloth dries after a few days, repeat the soaking process. You can do this regularly until they are ready to be served.

When ready to serve, you can decorate it, ice it with marzipan and royal icing, or just as is.

This recipe makes 5 pounds.

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Roasted Pear and Nut Stuffing

 

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In my last post I outlined the different ways I had of preserving a bucketful of feral pears I was lucky enough to find. Now, with a good supply of dried fruit and peel and some scrap vinegar, I was tempted to enjoy some fresh pears in an original recipe, one that suited the season and the cool weather. This fruit and nut stuffing is also ideal for those festive dinners where some choose not to eat meat, but is rich enough to appeal to vegetarians and omnivores alike.

To begin with I peeled, cored and chopped the pears and then roasted them in the oven at 350 degrees for about an hour, or until they are a caramel brown and have some crisp edges. Then I chopped them some more.

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For the bread I used a home-made sour dough corn bread, but any firm day old bread will work. For the nuts I used pecans, and the dried mushrooms I used porcini, but these can be varied according to what you have on hand or what you prefer.

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Roasted Pear and Nut Stuffing

  • Servings: 8
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Ingredients

8 cups of cubed bread

1 cup toasted nuts

15 oz dried mushrooms, soaked in 2 cups hot water

1/2 cup oil

one large onion

2 cloves of garlic

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 Tbsp fresh sage

1 tsp black pepper

2 tsp. salt

1 cup chopped, roasted pears

Method

Trim the crusts off the bread, cut in cubes and set aside. (The crusts can be ground into bread crumbs and saved for another recipe.)

Toast the nuts in a frying pan briefly until they begin to change colour. This will only take a couple of minutes, so be careful not to scorch them.  Chop and set aside.

Pour the boiling water over the dried mushrooms and set aside to cool.

Chop the onion and fry in the oil in a heavy skillet. Once translucent, add the garlic, parsley, sage and salt and pepper. Continue frying for another fi

Drain the mushrooms, saving the liquid, chop them and add to the mixture. Remove from the heat.

Add the nuts, pears and the onion mixture to the bred cubes and combine well. Add the mushroom water and stir again.

Pour into a lightly greased casserole dish and bake in a 350 degree oven for about an hour, until it is cooked through.


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Easter Stollen and Maple Hemp Marzipan

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Christmas stollen – ‘cuit’

I usually make stollen for Christmas, and did this past year, but the result was a little ‘cuit’, which in French does not sound so bad, but I thought might be seen as burned by English speakers. So I made another batch, and this one will be for Easter, and to share with everyone at the Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday this week. I will also give some my ideas for marzipan alternatives.

For my spring stollen, I made a slightly less rich version than the Christmas one by omitting the liquor in which I usually soak the raisins and currants. I did not use the usual dried fruits, but used instead some dried crab apples which give this stollen a distinctive and local flavour and colour.

I have tried many versions of this recipe, and finally settled on one which has the flavour and texture I wanted. Some are too light and brioche-like, most are too sweet. If there are no ground nuts in the recipe, it is impossible to achieve the density that I wanted. A generous amount of butter is also important. This recipe uses mostly the sweetness of the fruit, but if you want it sweeter, just add more honey.

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There is no need to be intimidated by making a yeast bread. Just let it rise until lots of air bubbles appear in the dough when you check the interior. In this cool weather, it can take a few hours. I allow it to rise at least three times, and if I am busy, I stir down the first mixture (the sponge without rising inhibitors like fat and salt) until I am ready to use it. I think this extra time maybe improves it, and certainly doesn’t hurt it. As for kneading, I just to it until I don’t feel like doing it any more. As long as it is holding together, it works. Also, amounts of flour vary depending on the type of flour, the size of eggs, etc. Just keep adding flour when you knead it until it is not sticky and not able to absorb any more. Therefore note that the second addition of flour in this recipe is approximate. Just add a little at a time until it feels right.

Stollen

1 cup warm milk (I used almond)

2 heaping Tbsp honey

3 tsp yeast granules

1. Dissolve the honey and yeast, and allow to sit about 10 minutes, or until the yeast is all bubbly.

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup currants

1/4 cup water, juice, brandy or rum

2. Pour the liquid over the dried fruit and allow to stand at least 1/2 hour. If you can do this earlier, even the day before, that is even better, especially if you are using liquor.

1 cup of flour

3. Add the flour to the yeast mixture and stir well. Let sit until it becomes bubbly. This is the sponge method, and at this point you can just stir it down. let rise and repeat until you are ready for the next stage.

1/2 cup dried fruit (I used crab apples)

1/2 cup ground almonds

1/2 cup nuts (I used hazelnuts)

1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled

1/2 tsp ground cardamom

1/2 tsp mace

1/2 tsp vanilla

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tsp salt

4 cups of flour (approximately). I used red fife, which, along with the unblanched almonds, gives it a darkish colour.

4. Mix all the ingredients one by one into the sponge, ending with the flour which should be added about 1 cup at a time. When all the liquid is absorbed, turn it out onto a floured surface and continue adding flour while kneading until it is no longer sticky. Continue to knead for a few more minutes, until the dough is nice and elastic.

5. Grease the ball of dough with a little oil, place in a bowl in a warm place and cover with a tea towel. The warmer the place, the faster it will rise. This stage can take from one hour to several hours. It will not quite double, because of the weight of the fruit and nuts, but it will be very spongy when you check the interior.

6. Punch it down and knead a few more times, making sure to get rid of all the air bubbles. If you want  a plain loaf, shape it into 2 loaves and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet an cover with a towel to rise again. This stage will be much faster, will not double but reach about 50% again of its original size. If you want a traditional stollen, divide the dough in two and roll each into a rectangle of about 12 inches x 6 inches. Place a strip of marzipan down the middle, fold one side over the marzipan and then the other side over that. Seal the edges so it doesn’t open when baked.

7. When the loaves plumpen up, place them in a 325 degrees F oven for 1 hour, or until the entire loaf is golden and sounds hollow when tapped.

8. Brush a little butter on the hot loaves. Allow to cool and then sprinkle some powdered sugar on top if you want.

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To make marzipan, mix some blanched almonds in the food processor until they start to become a paste. Add enough honey to hold the paste together when processed a few seconds longer and a few drops of almond essence. Form into a ball and cover until ready to use.

Or use the maple walnut marzipan recipe from my previous post.

When I posted the recipe for walnut marzipan, some readers pointed out they cannot eat nuts, so I also tried a seed and maple syrup paste. I chose hemp hearts because of their superior nutritional qualities and nutty flavour.

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Apart from the strange green colour, I consider it a real success, and will use it for my future stollens, be they for Christmas, Easter, cuit or not. However, I since discovered that hemp hearts are difficult to find in the U.S., so for those who can’t eat nuts and live in the U.S., I will continue to experiment with other seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin. This is the only part of the recipe that is nutless since the stollen is full of nuts. But I thought it was a good opportunity to introduce the idea of nutless marzipan.

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For a nut-free marzipan, here is my hemp hearts and maple syrup mixture. Just blend maple syrup with the hemp hearts in a food processor until it is the right consistency.

This same mixture can be thinned a little by adding more maple syrup to be used as an icing or cake filling. I covered an unsugared stollen with it. I like the idea of making an icing without using any refined sugar.

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