I could call a number of people I know Vietnamese fruitcakes but this is not about them. It’s about fruitcake that you can eat and enjoy. I’ve never understood why many people dislike fruitcake. The earliest ones I tasted were gifted to our family in beautiful holiday tins. We didn’t know they were supposed to be doorstops or even fathomed that they may have been regifted to us in a Nancy Reaganesque way. We just gobbled the fruitcakes up, and you know what? We liked them! Dense and studded with candied fruit and nuts, fruitcakes reminded us of a particular style of Vietnamese moon cakes that we enjoyed during the Mid-Autumn Harvest (Moon) Festival. In fact, my mother used to hoard tubs of holiday candied fruitcake mix for making moon cakes. She’d buy them at steep discounts in the after-Christmas sales at the grocery stores.
My husband’s Aunt Helen usually baked a holiday fruitcake and soaked it in plenty of brandy for a month before she’d serve it to us on Christmas Day. As you may know, she’s quite ill and this may be her last Christmas. I miss her boozy fruitcake and since my mother loves fruitcake too, I decided to develop a Vietnamese-style fruitcake to gift to Helen and Mom.
I’ve echoed the flavors of my family’s Vietnamese moon cakes by using candied citron and ginger, lots of roasted nuts and seeds, and lime leaf. The chewy-tart-sweet dried fruit represent my favorites but you can use whatever you’d like. Trader Joe’s and health food markets with bulk bins are great sources for most of these ingredients. As for the booze, I opted for mei kwei lu chiu, a Chinese sorghum and rose petal liquor (49% alcohol) sold at where else but a Chinese market! It runs about $15 a bottle and is great for sipping. It’s what’s used for good Chinese lap chong sausages, and what I add to my moon cake filling. Golden Bell Brand is what I purchase and the squat ceramic bottle is sold in a box. If you don’t have access to the liquor, simply use orange-flavored liquor such as triple sec.
Feel free to vary the quantity of dried fruit, sweet meats, and nuts. Just aim for a total of 11 1/2 cups total and keep a balance of color and texture in mind. This makes a lot and you can cut the batch in half but why not make more (the extra time involved is marginal) and give them away? For gifting, cut the fruitcakes into sections, wrap each one in plastic and/or parchment and present with a ribbon tied around it or in a tin.
Makes 2 large cakes, 3 pounds each
5 cups dried fruit, such as:
1 cup regular raisins
1 cup dried cranberries or cherries
2/3 cup dried apricots, each cut in half
1/3 cup roughly chopped dried bananas (e.g. Trader Joe’s flattened bananas)
1 cup roughly chopped pitted dates
2 cups candied fruit, such as:
1 cup roughly chopped candied fruit, such as pineapple and citron
1 tablespoon finely grated tangerine, orange, or lime zest (omit the white pith)
6 tender kaffir or regular lime leaves, minced, optional
1/3 cup freshly squeezed tangerine or orange juice
1 cup Chinese sorghum and rose petal liquor (mei kwei lu chiu) or orange-flavored liquor (e.g., triple sec, Cointreau), divided
4 1/2 cups roasted/toasted nuts and seeds, such as:
1/4 cup toasted white (hulled) sesame seeds, slightly crushed with a mortar and pestle
2 cups roasted walnuts, very roughly chopped
1 cup unsalted, roasted cashews, very roughly chopped
1/2 cup unsalted, roasted almonds, very roughly chopped
2 cups all-purpose bleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Generous 3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, freshly ground preferred
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water or pure almond extract
1 cup sugar
1. Put all the dried and candied fruit in a large bowl. Add the zest, lime leaf, juice, and 1/2 cup of the liquor. Combine well with a spatula, separating any large chunks. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to plump up and marinate for 3 hours, stirring a couple times to ensure even exposure to the liquid.
2. Meanwhile, butter two 8-cup loaf pans. Line the bottom with parchment and butter the parchment. Flour the pans, tapping each against the sink to remove excess flour. Set aside.
3. Add all the nuts to the bowl of dried and candied fruit. Stir to combine well. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg over the fruit and nuts and mix with your hands to ensure everything is well coated.
4. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 300ºF.
5. Use an electric mixer to beat the eggs until they are frothy. Add in the extract and orange blossom water, then gradually add the sugar. Keep beating until the mixture is pale yellow and thick. Have the prepared pans nearby.
Pour the egg mixture over the fruit and nuts. Use your hands to combine all the ingredients, making sure that nothing is clumped together and each piece is coated with batter. Scoop up gobs of the mixture and put them inside the prepared pans, pushing the cake mixture to the corners so the cake has a nice shape. Level the top with a rubber spatula, then bang each pan against the counter to settle the mixture. Slide into the oven and bake for about 1 1/2 hours, switching directions mid-way for even baking. The fruitcake is done when a skewer insert comes out clean.
6. Allow the cakes to cool for 20 minutes before unmolding. Use a skewer to poke holes all over the cakes. Then brush the remaining 1/2 cup of liquor all over. Set aside to cool completely. Put in an airtight container and let age for at least 48 hours (some say a week!) before eating. Refrigerate and return to room temperature before serving. To freeze for up to a year, encase the cake in cheesecloth, sprinkle with some of the liquor and wrap in foil.