Christmas “Dundee” Cake

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Our favorite Christmas cake is this rich, moist confection made with fresh and dried fruits, citrus and lots of nuts. My mother calls this a “Dundee Cake,” and we learned to enjoy it while living for a while in Scotland.

Friends were coming to join us for afternoon tea yesterday.  That was reason enough to make the first batch of the season.

My mother’s delicious pound cake recipe serves as the foundation.

Pound cake was the first cake she taught me once I finally graduated from the Bette Crocker school of boxed cake mixes so many years ago now.  Good pound cake is one of those wonderful traditions handed down generation to generation in some families; and I’m so glad my mother passed this legacy on to me.

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Here is the recipe card I copied from her file more than thirty years ago now.  It gives you the basics, but the fine points come only with initiation in the kitchen at the hands of a master baker, like my mother.  You may think I’m exaggerating a little here; but those also initiated into the secrets of making pound cake will understand.

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Now, it is simple enough to throw a handful or two of currants and a cup of chopped almonds into this basic batter and call it done.  Dundee cake, a Scottish favorite, is traditionally made with almonds, currants, and sultanas.  And it is traditionally decorated with sliced almonds on top.

But this is a “riff” on the traditional recipe.  My mother has made this “blonde” fruitcake from time to time over the years, in addition to her dark applesauce fruitcake.   Since this is my favorite, I add a bit here and there to make it special for my friends and loved ones.

If you decide to make it for yourself, leave yourself enough time to relax and enjoy the process.

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This is a long prep with many steps.  And you can take the basic outlines of this recipe and add a bit more of what you like, and leave out those things you don’t enjoy.

Candied fruit remains controversial in my family.  To Mother, it is required in all fruitcakes which bear that name.

My generation is not as fond of it, and some refuse to eat it at all.  So the cake will turn out fine without any candied fruit.  I’ve listed it here, but leave it out if you want.

Begin by setting out three sticks of butter to soften and five eggs to warm to room temperature.  Preheat the oven to 300F, and pour a cup of good spiced rum into a medium sized bowl to marinate the dried fruit.  I let the fruit soak while doing the rest of the prep, stirring it into the batter as the last step before filling the cake pans.

I soak about 2 cups total of fruit to include: raisins (light and or dark), chopped dates, chopped dried apricots, and chopped dried cherries.  I often add dried cranberries in place of the raisins.

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Measure 2 1/2 cups of all purpose or cake flour into a very large bowl.  All of the nuts, spices, zest, and the candied fruit will get tossed in this flour to coat.  Zest an orange directly into the flour, and add a cup of dried coconut flakes.

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Juice the orange into the rum and dried fruit bowl.

Spread three cups of nuts (pecans, hazelnuts, slivered almonds and walnuts… whatever you have) on a pan and let them toast for about five minutes in the pre-heating oven, while you do other things.

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When they are fragrant, chop them coarsely and add them to the flour.

Other dry ingredients for this bowl include 1/2 tsp. of baking soda, salt, 1/2 tsp. of cardamon powder, 1 tsp. nutmeg, and 1 tsp. ginger.

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Mix everything well to coat all of the fruit and nuts.  This helps keep them well distributed in the final batter and prevents clumping.

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Measure a cup of milk, and add 1 tsp. of vanilla and 1 tsp. of almond flavoring.  Sift three cups of flour onto a sheet of waxed paper.

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Prepare three loaf pans or one tube pan and one loaf pan by spraying them well with a non-stick cooking spray.  I also line loaf pans with waxed paper and sift a little flour into fluted bundt pans to prevent the cake from sticking.

With all ingredients and the pans prepped, the cake comes together fairly easily.

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Place two whole sticks of butter, and three TB of the third stick in a mixing bowl and beat on medium speed.  Slowly add three cups of granulated sugar and beat until the sugar is dissolved.  Stop and scrape down the bowl and beater to recombine all ingredients.

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With the mixer running on medium, add five eggs, one at a time, beating well after each egg.  Scrape the bowl and beater to combine all ingredients.  Beat again on a fairly high speed until the mixture lightens in color and looks very fluffy.

Add one c. of sifted flour and 1/3 c. of milk to the mixing bowl, and beat on low.

Add the remaining flour, a single cup at a time, with a chaser of 1/3 c. milk after each addition.  Stop the mixer when the last addition of milk is worked into the batter.

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Scrape the beater carefully and again scrape down the sides of the bowl.

You now have three bowls of ingredients:  the soaking fruit; the flour/nut/zest mixture; and the butter and egg batter.  Make sure the bowl with the nuts is large enough to combine all ingredients.

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Add the batter to the large bowl of flour, spices and nuts, stirring with a large rubber spatula until the two are well combined.

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Pour in the soaking fruit and rum, and add a cup of canned or Maraschino cherries.  Drain the juice before adding the cherries to keep the cake light in color.  Adding the juice results in a pink cake….

Stir until the batter is smooth and no dry flour remains.  Make sure your mixing strokes bring up all of the remaining flour and fruit from the bottom and sides of the bowl.

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Use a large ladle or dry measuring cup to scoop the batter evenly into your pans.  Fill each pan about 2/3 full, as this cake will rise.  Scrape down the sides of the pan and distribute the batter evenly.  The batter should be very thick and heavy.

Put all batter filled pans into the oven at the same time, on a rack positioned in the middle of the oven.

Once the cakes are in the oven, don’t open the door for the next 75 minutes.  This is important for the rise and texture of the cake.  After the first 75 minutes are up, very small pans may be done.  A tube or bundt pan usually takes 90 minutes to bake, and may need longer depending on how much fruit you have used.

Check finished cakes for doneness before removing them from the oven to a cooling rack.  Loosen the sides of the cake from the pan with a knife, and gently turn each cake out onto the rack.

You may glaze the cake with melted jelly when they are partially cooled.  I’ve used blackberry jelly, though apricot would be just as good.  Just melt about 1/4 cup of jelly in the microwave and brush it on to coat the entire cake.  Garnish with nuts and more cherries if you like, or sift powdered sugar over the glaze.  You  could also ice the cake with butter-cream frosting or coat it in chocolate ganache.

Fruitcake should be wrapped tightly and kept in a cool room.  Mine often stays in the garage, where it will keep for a few weeks.  Many people like to age their fruitcakes for several days to let the flavors develop before cutting them.   They are also delicious straight from the oven.  Since this recipe makes a lot of cake, you can sample it straight away while also putting cake aside for later.

You will never really appreciate how absolutely satisfying and delicious this cake can be until you have a slice (or two) for yourself.

Baking is good for the soul, if not for the waistline. 

If you try the recipe, just know that you will perfume your home with deliciousness for at least the next day, and you’ll have the perfect dessert on hand for your special gatherings.

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Woodland Gnome 2014

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A Circle Unbroken

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It is evening of the seventeenth of December.  Those of us who celebrate Christmas have entered “crunch time.”

The preparations feel endless sometimes.  Our shopping lists and “to do” lists telescope.  After the second visit this week with our friends at the main Williamsburg post office,  I am breathing a bit easier that “Christmas” is in the mail to loved ones who live far away.

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The final wreath I plan to make this year is complete, and in place on the dining room table.  It is an old grapevine wreath I made years ago from "found" vines.  I added reingeer moss and oyster shells.

The final wreath I plan to make this year is complete, and in place on the dining room table. It is an old grapevine wreath I made years ago from “found” vines. This year I’ve added reindeer moss and oyster shells.

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It is, perhaps, the repetition, year to year, of those small family rituals of the Christmas season which make this such a special time.  Every December we are drawn back to the music, the aromas, the tastes, and the much loved Christmas decorations we have enjoyed so much in years passed.

Saturday’s task was making fruitcake for my parents.  They love our recipe, passed on from Grandmother,  based on an applesauce spice cake she loved to make when my mother was a child.   We add many different fruits and nuts, jam, cherries, and pineapple to this basic cake recipe.

I found my notes from the epic batches I used to make in the 1980’s.  That recipe called for two dozen eggs.  The other ingredients were measured in pounds.  It took an entire day of effort, and yielded at least a dozen cakes.

I only doubled the basic recipe this year, a modest effort.  Yet from cooking down the apples for applesauce to wrapping the finished cakes felt like a day’s work.

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Moss fern will thrive here in bright, indirect light.  It is in a "semi-terrarium;" partly, but not fully grown in glass.

Moss fern will thrive here in bright, indirect light, in the center of the wreath.  It is in a “semi-terrarium;” partly, but not fully grown in glass.

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Fruitcake is one of the flavors of Christmas in our family.  Tomorrow I’ll make another batch of blond fruit cakes, which Mother calls “Dundee Cake.”  It will be rich in cherries, walnuts, pecans, and dates; perfumed with a little fresh orange zest.

We’ll  have this cake ready to serve friends who stop in and to enjoy ourselves with a cup of chai.

Wreathes speak of this repetition; the unbroken circle of the year turning back to Christmas once again.

Every December I go out early in the month to cut fragrant Cedar and collect pine cones.  I cut herbs, and sometimes roses, for the year’s Christmas wreathes.  Cedar is one of the aromas of Christmas which speaks to me most poignantly.

We always went out to cut a cedar tree from a friend’s field when I was a child, and then brought it home on the roof of the car, and set it up in the living room where it filled the house with its fresh spicy green aroma.  We knew it was finally “Christmas” once our tree was lit and decorated in the living room.

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We always had an Advent Wreath on the kitchen table when I was growing up, and lit the candles each night at dinner. We lit an additional candle each week as we counted the days until Christmas. This is a gesture towards remembering that beautiful Advent wreath my mother always made for us.

We always had an Advent Wreath on the kitchen table when I was growing up, and lit the candles each night at dinner. We lit an additional candle each week as we counted the days until Christmas. This is a gesture towards remembering that beautiful Advent wreath my mother always made for us.

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Every family has its own cherished customs.  Our expressions of Christmas are as unique as our thumbprint. 

And in the spirit of sharing our unique expressions, I offered a Holiday Wreath Challenge this year for anyone willing to share photos or a post about the wreathes and decorations you have created this year.

One of the first responses came from Jenny, who hosts the One Word Photo Challenge on her photography blog.  Jenny created a beautiful wreath from the clay she uses to construct her amazing miniature scenes.

Jenny's beautiful wreath, handmade from clay.

Jenny’s beautiful wreath, handmade from clay.

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Please visit Jenny’s post to see how she constructed her wreath, step by step.

Then a dear friend and neighbor shared photos of the wreath she made around Thanksgiving time for her front door.

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Wreath by Farrokh

Wreath by Farrokh

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The berries came on a vine she found in the New Town area while shopping one day in mid-November.  She was amazed to find them lying on the sidewalk under a tree.

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wreath F1

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I’ve since found the same vine in the same area, but don’t know its name.  It makes for such a beautiful wreath of multicolored berries  mixed with cones.  An unexpected gift from nature; so beautifully used!

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It was several weeks more before Eliza Waters shared photos of her Christmas wreathes.

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Eliza

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Eliza lives in Massachusetts, and has already enjoyed snow.  In fact, snow over Thanksgiving weekend brought down some large branches of Balsam Fir which she salvaged to use in a whole series of gorgeous Christmas decorations, along with pine and pine cones.  Please visit her post to see them all. 

Next, Barbara Scott, who lives in Amelia County, Virginia shared photos of her elegant Christmas decorations.  Barbara and her husband have breathed new life into a grand Virginia country home.  She has used Blue Spruce, sent by a friend along with Magnolia and other evergreen materials in her garden to craft several stunning arrangements indoors and out.

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Barbara

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These are pure eye candy, so please take time to enjoy Barbara’s posts.

Speaking of “eye candy,” you may also enjoy seeing photos Chris VanCleave, The Redneck Rosarian, posted of some stunning Christmas arrangements featuring red roses and red poinsettias.  Gwennie, at Gwennie’s Garden has also pulled together some elegant and lovely Christmas decorations.  She and I share a love for luminous blue glass, which she has used  so beautifully here.

It always fascinates me to see how friends and loved ones celebrate Christmas, and what is important to their joy each year.

I love exploring trees full of antique ornaments, and seeing the keepsakes friends bring out to enjoy each December.

I like tasting cherished family recipes and trying new concoctions with chocolate, nuts, and fruit.

And I’m always fascinated with the wreathes, door decorations, and light displays which brighten up the neighborhood in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

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It brings us full circle. 

We close the year by re-visiting those things which bring us joy and comfort. 

We reach out to those people we hold dear. 

And we celebrate all things bright and beautiful in this season of light.

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Woodland Gnome 2014

 With love and appreciation to everyone who contributed to this post.

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My front door this December, decorated with bits from our garden and wooden birds.

Our  front door this December, decorated with bits from our garden and wooden birds.

Winter Rainbow

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Part of a “sun dog” rainbow in the afternoon sky over College Creek on New Year’s Day.

Winter’s palette turns to shades of grey, blue, green, brown and white; a much quieter, more restful world of color than what surrounds us the rest of the year.

The view from our deck this morning.  The temperature was up to about 15 F by the time we ventured out of doors.

The view from our deck this morning. The temperature was up to about 15 degrees by the time we ventured out of doors.

When the sun is shining from a brilliantly clear winter sky, everything is touched with gold and silver sparkles of light.  It is almost blinding reflected from ice and water.

Our Violas are solidly frozen this morning but will bounce back once they thaw out sometime tomorrow.

Our Violas are solidly frozen this morning, but will bounce back once they thaw out sometime tomorrow.

Although some areas remain blanketed in snow for much of winter, we never see it for more than a few days here and there- if at all.  “Snow day” is still synonymous with “holiday” in my mind, as it  has meant an unexpected day off to enjoy as I pleased for much of my life.

We wait for it, hope for it, and celebrate the snow if it comes.  Many winters we never see anything more than flurries.   And so color remains with us throughout winter.   Beauty is everywhere.

Birds, berries, and the occasional Camellia blossom add pops of red in our winter gardens.

The Swiss chard looked good enough to eat on New Year's Eve.

The Swiss chard looked good enough to eat on New Year’s Eve.

Violas, Mahonia, Helleborus, and Crocus offer blossoms in purples, oranges, yellows, pinks, white and red through the coldest winter days.  We can enjoy something blooming in the garden every single day of the year.

What delicious luxury.  We only have to look for it, and we are still surrounded by all of the colors of the rainbow.  The shades, tints, and hues have shifted subtly, winter paints in a different palette, but color never leaves us entirely.

American holly berries glow red in the winter sunshine. They will all be enjoyed by hungry birds and squirrels over the next few weeks.

American holly berries glow red in the winter sunshine. They will all be enjoyed by hungry birds and squirrels over the next few weeks.

So here is our winter rainbow from Williamsburg, Virginia.  I’ve stretched the rules a bit for Tuesday Snapshots today.  One photo was taken inside to capture the beautiful red of a bowl, and a few photos are a little more than a week old now, though they would look nearly the same if taken today.

I hope you are warm, and well, and able to enjoy this beautiful day.  It looks like a fine day to finish off the fruitcake left from Christmas, if there is any, and to settle in with a wonderful new novel penned by a friend.

All photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

ROY G. BIV (Forestgarden)

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