‘Tis the season for dried fruit

dried pears. hard to find but totally worth it




Centuries ago, dried fruit was the only game in town during winter.  Now we have fresh fruit year-round.  Strangely, our year-round options for dried fruit are also expanding rapidly, from craisins to cherries to blueberries to tropical fruit, peaches and pears.  Dried fruit isn’t just for winter anymore.  It has plenty of uses, from snacks to baking to cereal topping to gifting.   So, how healthy is it?

Good points: 

  • high fiber
  • full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
  • low fat
  • keeps well and very easy to pack for a snack
  • not messy

Bad points:

  • concentrated calories and very easy to over eat.
  • sugar-sweetened varieties are even higher calorie
  • some are treated with chemicals to maintain bright colors or chewy texture. I’ve seen dried fruit with added flavoring!

If you’re going to buy dried fruit, check the ingredients list.  The best choices don’t include added sugars or colors, although dried cranberries would be a hard sell without some sweeteners.  They also will be more chewy and not come in bright colors.  Sugar coated dried pineapple chunks might taste fabulous, but you’re getting a lot of extra sugar calories compared to just eating fresh pineapple.

And then there’s fruit cake.

While dried fruit is a year round product, fruitcake isn’t.  I’m happy to admit I love fruit cake.  Good fruitcake.  But lots of people don’t care for what passes as fruitcake these days: a treacly sweet block of brightly colored candied fruit bits.  It wasn’t always like that.  Centuries ago, when fruitcakes were born, ingredients were scarce and food storage options were limited.  There was no fresh fruit in winter.  There was also no refrigeration.  Early fruitcakes were reportedly made from barley mash, dried fruit, honey, nuts and available spices.  The result would be dense and not very sweet and definitely not full of bright red and green fruit pieces.  Over the years, other ingredients were added to the mix, including butter and rum.  A definite improvement in my opinion.

I’ve been making fruitcake for many years, with different recipes and different fruit combinations.  I steer clear or those candied fruits that are for sale during the holiday baking season, and choose plain dried fruit in it’s most natural state.  This recipe is an adaptation of one I found in Fine Cooking magazine a few years back, and it’s by far the easiest and most reliable.  The finished product is delicious.  Even people who turn up their noses at fruitcake like it, although I had to name it something different to distract them.  I think I called it Ginger Fruit Bread.  Here’s my variation, using oil instead of butter to improve the fat profile:

Combine 10 -12 oz dried fruit, zest from 1/2 orange and 3/4 cup rum or brandy in a saucepan.  Heat to simmering and turn off the heat, cover and refrigerate at least 24 hours, up to 3 days.  Bring to room temperature before mixing into batter.

What fruits to use?  I chopped up 1/2 lb dried pears, which are one of my favorite dried fruit finds.  They can be scarce, and are usually only available in natural food stores.  I added dried cranberries to round out the mix.  I’ve also used dried cherries, chopped dates, chopped apricots and currants in other variations.  The mix is really up to you.  Have fun experimenting.

Make the cake:

Mix 10 TB oil with 2/3 cup brown sugar and 1/3 cup white sugar.  Beat in 3 eggs, 1/2 tsp vanilla and 1/4 tsp salt.  Mix in the spices: 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1/4 tsp cardamom, 1/8 tsp nutmeg and a pinch of cloves.  Add 1 cup plus 1 TB flour.  Mix in the fruit.

The finishing touch: mince up 3 oz candied ginger and add to the batter.  Candied ginger isn’t exactly health food, but it adds immensely to the flavor of this cake.

Bake in an 8″ loaf pan (greased and lined with parchment in both directions) at 325 for 15 minutes.  Lower the temp to 300 and bake another 90 minutes.  Let the cake cool, wrap in cheesecloth soaked in rum and store in a plastic bag for at least a week before serving.  Baste with more rum if you’re storing them longer.

Gluten Free variation: I experimented with an all purpose gluten-free baking mix from Arrowhead Mills, and made this recipe substituting that for the flour.  I also threw in a TB of ground flaxseed meal.  It turned out just fine, so if you’re avoiding gluten, or will be hosting guests who are, this might be an option for dessert.

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