If you are like most people, you are thinking, “Fruitcake?” Nothing is more emblematic of holiday dread than those dense bricks of chopped, overly sweet, neon-colored preserved fruits and nuts, held together by a gummy mortar of oddly spiced cake batter — those round or rectangular blocks, heavy enough to serve as doorstops or even a lethal projectile if hurled at an annoying relative in a fit of bad temper.
I hear you, but bear with me.
In the right hands, using high quality ingredients, the lowly fruitcake can be elevated to a state of grace.
Think stained glass windows.
In fact, it is said that the best fruitcakes to be obtained by mail order are actually crafted by Trappist monks at Gethsemani Farms in the hills of central Kentucky. But, be warned, they don’t come cheap. They start at $36, plus shipping for a two and one half pound cake.
Maybe you don’t want to shell out big bucks for your fruitcake. By now you know to avoid going to the nearest big box store or the seasonal aisle of the local drugstore.
No, what you are looking for is a tried and true recipe. That was my predicament, a few decades ago.
As I was listening to the radio broadcast of Capote’s, A Christmas Memory, the idea came to me to bake up a big batch of fruitcakes to give to friends and family as Christmas gifts. I could do this. I fancied myself a serious, capable cook. I was 15.
I went right to the source of cooking know-how, my mother.
She knew everything about cooking. She had thousands of recipes. Her baking was the stuff of local legend. People commissioned her to bake cakes for birthdays, graduations, all manner of special events, even weddings.
I knew she had the key to fruitcake perfection.
Once I made my intentions clear, she didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“Well, you’ll need the right ingredients, the McCall’s Magazine recipe and your father will have to buy the apricot brandy.”
“Where am I going to get a copy of the recipe?”
Her encouragement had my mind racing. I was already anticipating her reply.
“Oh, it’s in one of my recipe boxes. Get them out from the cupboard and start looking. You know, this will cost a pretty penny, and your father will insist you pay for it, including the brandy.”
I smiled. I had this covered. I had been a paperboy for the last two years. I was flush — well, flush for a 15-year-old. My mother smiled back knowingly.
“Okay, go find the recipe, make a shopping list. You’ll probably need to quadruple the amounts to make sure you have enough of everything. I’ll talk to dad.”
Locating the recipe was a treasure hunt in itself. As mentioned, my mother had thousands of recipes, housed in multiple boxes. She told me to look for a magazine pullout section. That narrowed the search to only a few hundred similar magazine pullouts.
Finally, I located the yellowed pages from a bygone edition of McCall’s Magazine. I still have the recipe, the pages now brittle with age. But, thanks to the information-at-your-fingertips nature of the Internet, now anyone can make McCall’s Famous Christmas Fruitcake.
I remember shopping with my father, proudly shelling out the cash for enough premium ingredients to make somewhere between 16 and 20 small loaf-sized cakes. Ingredients assembled and measured out, my mother sitting nearby at the kitchen table — just in case I needed a helping hand — I got down to the business of serious baking.
The kitchen soon filled with the sweet, warm spicy smells of my fruitcakes. Once cooled and ready to store, I also remember the ritual of giving each cake a “drink” of brandy, every week or so, until it was time to apply the finishing touches — decorative wrap, ribbons and bows — to dress them up for Christmas gifting.
In the best of all worlds, this is what holidays are about — gifts of nurture, the fruits of the season, lovingly laid on the table. In that spirit, I offer my not-so-secret recipe for the perfect holiday turkey.
There are a few steps, but trust me, it’s worth the effort.
I have perfected and prepared this over the last several years and it is always received with admiration and the sounds of satisfied eating.
Step One: Brine your turkey
Ideally, this process should begin two days ahead of cooking.
Who doesn’t love a spa day? Think of brining as giving your turkey a couple of days at the spa.
You will need a pot large enough to hold the turkey, completely submerged in the brining “soup.” A lid is desirable, but you can cover the pot with plastic wrap and foil, if necessary.
Also, clear a space in your refrigerator for the pot in advance.
Gather and chop the following aromatics into big chunks. Peeling is not necessary; just give them a good rinse. Divide into three even portions.
- 2 medium onions
- 6 cloves of garlic, smashed
- 3 sticks of celery — the leafier, the better
- 3 carrots
- 2 oranges — first squeeze juice into a bowl and reserve
- 2 lemons — first squeeze juice into a bowl and reserve
- Mix the following seasonings/spices in a bowl.
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 3 Tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
- 1 Tablespoon peppercorns
- 6 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- Liquid to pour over the turkey:
- Reserved orange & lemon juices (see above)
- 1/2 gallon fresh apple cider
- Enough water to completely cover the turkey in the pot
Assembling the brine:
- First, wash the turkey (ideally, 16 to 18 pounds) in the sink and then pat dry with paper towels. Be sure to reserve the “parts” for use in the next step.
- Place 1/3 of the chopped/smashed/squeeze aromatics in the bottom of the pot and add enough water to about 2 inches.
- Next, place the turkey in the pot, main cavity facing up.
- Fill the cavity of the turkey with 1/3 of aromatics and 1/2 of the seasoning/spice mix.
- Pour the juices and cider over the turkey, then sprinkle with the rest of the seasonings/spices. Place the remaining aromatics around the bird.
- Add enough water to submerge the entire turkey. Before the pot gets too full, slosh the turkey around a bit to make sure there are no air pockets.
- Place the pot in the refrigerator and cover. (Hint: I like to assemble the brine on a small table or sturdy chair right next to the refrigerator, as this will be heavy and the less transporting needed, the better.)
Step Two: Make broth ice cubes
- Place the reserved turkey parts in a soup pot. A two-quart pot works well.
- Add a one-quart container of your favorite store-bought turkey stock/broth. I prefer a low sodium option, found in the soup aisle of most any grocery store. Bring to a boil.
- Reduce temperature to low and let simmer for an hour. Add a little water and put heat on lowest possible setting if liquid reduces too much.
- Turn off the heat and let the broth cool to room temperature.
- Strain and place broth in ice cube trays and freeze. There should be enough broth to fill 2-3 ice cube trays.
- Do this at least one day ahead. I usually make it the same day I brine the bird, just to get it out of the way.
Step Three: Out of the spa and into the oven
- Preheat your oven to desired temperature (I usually set it at 325 degrees).
- While the brine pot is still in the refrigerator, use a mug or soup ladle to remove enough liquid from it to avoid spilling when transporting the pot to your workspace.
- Once the pot is out, carefully remove the bird from the pot and place it on a large cookie sheet (not the cooking pan just yet).
- Discard all the brine solids and liquid. They have commingled with raw turkey and are not fit for anything, with the possible exception of the compost bin.
- Pat the bird dry with clean paper towels.
- Place the bird on a rack, inside the roasting pan. The rack will keep it elevated so the bottom doesn’t stick to the pan and doesn’t get soggy from boiling in the juices.
- Massage the turkey all over (bottom to top), with quality oil. I like using extra virgin olive oil and some toasted sesame oil (three parts olive to one part sesame).
- Season the bird as you wish. I use homemade Poultry Seasoning (all*recipes.com/recipe/233909/homemade-*poultry-seasoning/), but prepackaged, store-bought is okay. Also, I tend to go heavy with the black pepper, as I enjoy the flavor it adds.
- Here’s where the magic happens! You will need toothpicks, some of the oil and seasonings you just employed and the broth ice cubes.
- Carefully work your fingers underneath the breast skin to loosen it from the breast meat. Avoid tearing the skin.
- Make a paste from the oil and seasonings and massage this into the breast meat.
- Distribute the broth ice cubes evenly under the skin (I usually get 2 trays worth in).
- Pull the skin back to its original position and secure in place with toothpicks. At this point your turkey may look like an extra from Game of Thrones. Remember, looks can be deceiving.
- Once skin is securely back in place, carefully adjust seasoning on top of skin, if necessary.
- You are ready for the oven. Make a foil tent for the bird and cook as you are accustomed: 15 minutes per pound.
- The Magic, explained: The broth ice cubes serve 2 purposes:
- They baste and season the bird.
- They keep the breast meat cooler longer so the dark meat gets a head start. When you turkey is done, you will have juicy white meat and fully cooked juicy dark meat.
- Do NOT stuff the turkey! I am adamant about this. Make the dressing in a separate dish. Just do it. End of discussion.
Step Four: The home stretch
When the turkey is done, remove it from the oven and let it rest, still loosely tented, for at least a half-hour. About halfway through the resting, I like to give the bird a good basting.
While it is resting, retrieve the pan juices with a ladle or baster and make gravy.
Start with a roux.
If the gravy needs further thickening, I add instant mashed potatoes, as needed to get the desired consistency. This avoids lumps from corn starch and no raw taste from additional flour.
Carve the turkey, add gravy, enjoy!
Here’s one last hint to bring the scents of the holiday into the house. I make a simmering potpourri of orange and lemon peels, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and star anise in a small pot, filled halfway with water.
Place this on very low heat on a back burner and let it simmer all day. Add water as the level gets low. Just don’t forget to turn it off and discard once it has served its purpose.
Whatever graces your holiday table, and whomever gathers ’round, Happy Feasting!
This feature was first published in its entirety in the Chronicle’s first print edition Dec. 1. An excerpt was published online Nov. 21.