Four days until Christmas Eve, five days until Christmas Day. Are you all set, all ready? Are your presents purchased and wrapped and hidden away? Are you avoiding the kitchen or still churning out cookies and cakes and edible gifts like there's no tomorrow? (Not making a Mayan calendar joke, not making a Mayan calendar joke, not making a Mayan calendar joke...)
I'm very sorry to have to add to your load at this crucial moment before the holidays, when any moment of free time you might have is probably tied up with a million other things, but I don't really have a choice. Forgive me! You see, I made this fruitcake last week and it is so good, so perfect, so un-fruitcake-y and wonderful that the year cannot, must not, end without it on your holiday table. Okay? Okay.
I read about this lovely thing in the Washington Post, my ears perking up when the journalist said that it was responsible for her "fruitcake awakening". The cake required no alcoholic soaking, was not studded with any garishly colored cherries or bitter citrus peel and could be stored for at least two weeks. Plus, I could buy all the figs, raisins and nuts from the discount store around the corner from my house. Recipe kismet always feels so good, doesn't it?
Then, when I went and actually looked at the recipe, I had to read it twice. Were my eyes betraying me or were there no eggs and no shortening of any kind in this cake? No, I could read correctly. What it did have was an enormous amount of baking soda, plus the loveliest name I could think of. I don't know about you, but Arkansas Fig Fruitcake has such simple lyricism that I probably would have been moved to try it on account of the name alone.
So, here's what you do. You chop and simmer a bunch of figs with some sugar and water until they are soft. Then you purée them and measure out most of the purée (the rest is delicious stirred into your morning yogurt - cook's treat!). You mix the fig purée with walnuts or pecans, a box of raisins, two diced apples, what seems like an absurd amount of sugar (I think you could probably cut down on this if you wanted to, but I loved the recipe as is), flour, spices and the aforementioned soda, which you need in such ample quantities to help power up the dense, heavy dough. It's so dense and heavy that you shouldn't bother mixing this with anything but your hands - it will make any electric motor smoke. This part is messy.
You push the dough evenly into your pans (I happen to have one very large loaf pan - that kiwi in the first photo was meant to show you just how epically large my fruitcake was - but I'd recommend baking the cake in smaller pans for better gifting) and bake them for two hours at the relatively low temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Slowly, slowly, the cake rises and the edges caramelize in the oven heat. When it's done, the burnished top towers over the edge of the pan.
Cooled and sliced, it's remarkably light and incredibly fragrant and moist. It's hard to believe that nothing but fruit, really, gives the cake the moisture it needs. As it ages, it gets better and better - the flavors melding further, though I frankly don't know how this cake would ever last two whole weeks. And all you fruitcake skeptics out there: I'd wager a pretty penny that this is just the thing that could help you with your own fruitcake awakening. Tell me if any of you try it and are converted!
By the way, all that sugar doesn't actually result in a tooth-achingly sweet cake. What it does is give the cake this deep caramel flavor on top of all the other things going on: the gentle crunch of the fig seeds, the warmth of the spices, the satisfying heft of the crumb. It's so good that I served it as my birthday cake last week when I turned 35 (!). Who needs a chocolate layer cake when there's Arkansas Fig Fruitcake to be had?
3 cups (14 ounces) dried figs, stemmed and coarsely chopped
2 cups plus 6 tablespoons sugar
2 1/2 cups water, plus more as needed
2 cups finely diced, peeled apple (about 2 apples)
15 ounces of raisins
2 cups pecans or walnuts, in halves or pieces
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking soda
1. Combine the figs, 6 tablespoons of the sugar and 2 cups of the water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring just to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the figs are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
2. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let the mixture rest for 10 minutes, then use an immersion blender on low speed to process the figs to a coarse puree, adding water as needed. Let cool. The yield is slightly more than 2 cups.
3. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Butter and flour a 9 3/4-inch tube pan, preferably one with a removable bottom, or two standard loaf pans.
4. Measure 2 cups of the fig puree and transfer to a very large mixing bowl along with the apple, raisins and nuts. Reserve the remaining purée for another use (like stirred into your morning yogurt). Stir to mix well.
5. Whisk together the flour, the remaining 2 cups of sugar, the cinnamon, cloves and salt in a separate large bowl until combined.
6. Combine the baking soda and the remaining 1/2 cup of water in a small bowl, stirring until the baking soda has dissolved. Stir this into the fruit mixture.
7. Add the dry ingredients to the fruit mixture and mix well. The batter will be extremely thick and heavy, so at this point it's easiest to mix it with your hands. You might need to add a couple tablespoons of water to moisten all the ingredients.
8. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan(s) and use a flexible spatula or your hands dipped in water to smooth the top. Bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours or until a tester inserted near the middle of the cake comes out clean.
9. Cool for 30 minutes, then remove from the pan to cool completely. (If using a tube pan with a removable base, keep the cake on the base as it cools.) Wrap tightly and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.