Fast Tip Friday: Nonono ‘Nanners

FACT: If you wrap the tops of your banana bunches in plastic wrap, they will take longer to go brown.

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That’s why when you buy organic bananas at the store they usually already have that plastic thingy on their tops – because they turn brown faster.

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I am not even joking with you. Give it a try.

Shoo, Fly. Don’t bother me.

Another consequence of being away for the week, in addition to my friendly mushroom collection, is that we were inundated with fruit flies.  This is despite me scouring the kitchen before we left, scrubbing everything and emptying the compost and the garbage and cleaning them out. Nothing was left on the counters.

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And they’re everywhere: flying into our faces as we sit in the office, harassing Gren as he lazes about on the couch …

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GRATUITOUS CORGI PHOTO

When I was a kid and we were living in Victoria, all of a sudden one fall we were completely inundated with fruit flies. My mother tried EVERYTHING: traps, glue, tape, swatting, pesticides … nothing worked. Eventually she began to take enormous satisfaction in sucking up clouds of them with the vacuum cleaner. The culprit was eventually revealed to be a banana hidden in Ando’s closet. Yuck. I didn’t want this situation to turn into that situation. So, after hiding all produce in the safe confines of the refrigerator, I made up some traps for them in the hopes that they will mostly die and go away. There are lots of different fly traps you can make at home, but they all have the same basic concept: something sweet to attract them, some method of preventing them from leaving, and then a liquid to drown them. Or you poison them by other means.Shoo Fly 1

Fruit flies are also known as vinegar flies, because they are attracted to the sweetness of wines and juices, and of cider and rice vinegars. So my trap involved filling a bowl with enough rice vinegar to drown a fruit fly. You can also use juice or wine for this. Then you add a drop of dish soap to the mix to break the surface tension so the flies can’t get away.

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Then you make a cover. You can fashion a paper cone with the narrow end pointing towards the vinegar so that the flies get funneled in but can’t escape, or you can use plastic wrap. Poke lots of holes in the plastic wrap, each one about fruit fly sized.

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I also read that apparently fruit flies are like teeny tiny asthmatics. Because they’re so small, they need to breathe nice clean air. Particles like smoke get stuck in them and kill them. So incense is a pretty good killer of fruit flies. I shoved a few sticks into my house plants (because fruit flies like to hang out there when they’re not cavorting in the kitchen). After a few seconds I saw a fruit fly do a death spiral in the column of smoke and then keel over on the table below. NEAT.

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This is the kitchen vinegar trap after about two hours. SCIENCE.

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Beeswax Food Wrap

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Christmas may be over for you, but I’m still going strong with my backlog of gift ideas, so stick with me.  And this one might come in handy for you as you are dealing with festive leftovers.

Start with some scraps of fabric, cut into various shapes, that you can wrap around bowls or sandwiches or whatever.  I finished the edges with pinking shears, so that they wouldn’t fray so fast (once they’re waxy, they won’t fray at all).

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Then grate a whole bunch of beeswax.  I did 3oz beeswax, which gave me just enough to finish 11 pieces of fabric.

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Turn your oven on to about 180°F, or as low as it will go, and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Lay a piece of fabric on the baking sheet and sprinkle it evenly with beeswax.  You want enough that when it’s melted it will saturate the cloth.

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Shove the fabric in the oven for a few minutes.  Keep an eye on it and watch for how long it will take the beeswax to melt — between five and ten minutes.

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When the beeswax is entirely melted, haul out your baking sheet and immediately remove the cloth from the foil — if you don’t it will stick and get gross.  I waved mine in the air a few times before the wax set and I could set them down.

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Keep going until all your sheets are finished and thoroughly saturated with beeswax.  If you miss a spot, you can always top it up and shove it back in the oven for a few minutes.

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Use these wraps like you would plastic wrap.  They will mould into shapes with the heat of your hands and stick to themselves, so you can even cover bowls with them.

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I was going to show you the wrap on a sandwich but I was out of bread so you get deli meat instead in a wrap.  Beeswax is naturally antibacterial, and the wax itself blocks out air, so it makes a really good seal for keeping your food fresh.

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Wash gently in warm (not hot!) water to remove food goo and to ease the wax back into shape.  TADA!

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Pfft. I can do that: Ali Does It turns three!

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Can you believe it?  I’ve been Doing It Myself for THREE FREAKING YEARS now!  Well, it’s been longer than that, but today marks the third anniversary of when I started putting my foibles and failures (and too many pictures of my dog) up on the internet for you to enjoy.  And I hope you’ve enjoyed it!

How to commemorate this, though?  I’ve been doing a lot of cooking, so I didn’t really want to do that.  And because Christmas is over and we’re moving in a couple months I don’t have any real crafty/fixy projects on the horizon.  But.  I saw this back on Etsy a year or so ago and I thought, I could TOTALLY make that myself.  It won’t be as GOOD, mind you, but I could totally do it.  So I’m gonna.  Here goes.

Because I can never do anything in half measures, I decided to make THREE bowls instead of just the one, and they’re gonna be nesting bowls.

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So I needed three bowls of approximately the same shape but different sizes.  Fortunately I have three stainless steel ones that will do just fine.

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You also need a barrier between the bowl and the paste.  You can use plastic wrap but I didn’t want to deal with wrinkles so I used petroleum jelly, which is the only thing I didn’t have on hand and had to buy.

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I still have stacks and stacks of newspapers to use, and so I tore a bunch of those up into thin strips, following the grain of the paper.

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And you need paste as well, obviously.  I went with the same recipe I used for the magnificent and popular papier mâché helicopter piñata I made a few years ago, which is 2 cups flour to 3 cups water.  BAM.

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Make sure to spread newspaper or drop cloths or garbage bags on your work area so you don’t have to deal with errant splashes of dried paste later on.  This, incidentally, is a good project to do while watching movies/television on a bad-weather day.  I curled up with Supernatural, which is not a very good series, but that Jensen Ackles is pretty enough to make it worth watching, and the plot is never too heavy that I have to keep my eyes glued to the screen a hundred percent of the time.

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Start by smearing the outside of your bowl with petroleum jelly.  Try to put it on as smoothly as possible, but make sure it’s pretty thick at the same time.  If you’re using plastic wrap, try to avoid too many wrinkles, and wrap the plastic around the edges of the bowl as well.

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Then have at it, pasting up your strips of newsprint and sticking them to your bowl form.  Do a layer or two, allow it to dry completely, then do another one.  I did a layer, waited an hour, then did another layer and let that dry overnight, then repeated the process the next day.

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This project will definitely take you a couple of days, so make sure to keep your paste tightly sealed when you’re not using it.

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When the bowl is as thick as you want it to be, and it has dried all the way through, use a thin knife to carefully pry the bowl from the other bowl.

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Wipe off any excess petroleum jelly or peel away the plastic wrap. I found that a cotton tea towel did the best job at getting all the petroleum jelly off.

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Trim the edges of the bowl if you like with a sharp pair of scissors.

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I left mine to cure another day like this, after sealing the open edges with some white glue.

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I flipped the glue over and discovered that it was actually called Troll Booger Glue.  I can’t begin to tell you how delighted I was by that.

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Now, the bowls on Etsy were lined with gold leaf, but I ain’t got the time nor the money for that.  I do, however, have some copper-coloured spray paint.  So I’m going to use that (taking all the necessary precautions, of course).

I couldn’t find my breathing mask so I went with a bandana.  The Pie took one look at me and started laughing so I thought I’d share.

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If you’re using spray paint on your bowls, make sure to do the inside of the bowl first.  That way you can avoid getting the wrong colour on the wrong side of the bowl.

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Once the inside is done and dried, flip the bowls upside down and do the outside, being careful to direct your spray so it doesn’t get underneath the bowls.  I used blue, white, and black.

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It took a couple coats to make the lines of print disappear.  I thought I had some white spray paint but it turned out that I only had gesso.

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And the gesso only worked so well so I ended up spraying over it with blue.  After that was fully cured, I gave it a once-over with some spray varnish, for added sheen and protection.

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And that’s it.  Not bad, not bad at all.

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Deep Dishes, Deep Pie, Deep Dough, Deep Thoughts

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Historically in my family, my dad’s mother has been the only person in the world who could successfully make pastry for pies. My mother and I have never been lucky enough to absorb her gift. I am still, however, determined to perfect my technique, and so, five years too late, I am using the Cooks Illustrated vodka pie crust recipe, which I borrowed from Smitten Kitchen.

I had gotten an email from my dad this morning (Monday) saying that my grandmother was unwell, and would I please send her a letter? So I was going to make a pie and take pictures and tell her all about how I had mastered this new skill. Or how I had failed. Either way, it would have been entertaining. Unfortunately, she passed away while I was making the dough, so I didn’t get that chance. She was 102, and healthy to the end. None of us can live forever, but she will nonetheless be missed. So in honour of Barbara Linklater Bell, the Queen of Pastry and all things baked, I present my own deep-dish pear and apple pie.

So we start with the crust.

Whisk together, in a medium-sized bowl, 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar. Next time, I would probably leave out the salt, as it didn’t dissolve and I kept hitting little grains of it when I ate it.

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Now, you add your cold fat.  This recipe calls for 1/2 cup vegetable shortening and 3/4 cup butter.  Both being very cold.  That is key.  Cut those up into small cubes.

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Using a pastry cutter (though you could use a food processor if you wanted), start blending the fat into the flour.

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Keep going …

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Until you get this powdery, crumb-y sort of material.

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Now sprinkle in 1/4 cup very cold water and 1/4 cup very cold vodka. If you’re worried about the booze content, remember that vodka is tasteless and odorless, and all the alcohol in it will evaporate during cooking. This is what gives us that lovely flaky crust.

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Fold that in with a rubber spatula, until things start to come together. This will take some time, so be patient. Resist the urge to add more fluid.

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Eventually, you will be out of powdery stuff and have all these curd-like clumps. That was good enough for me.

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Now pour half that mixture onto a piece of plastic wrap.

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Gather the edges of the wrap and use it to squeeze the pastry into a ball.

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Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap it tightly, and do the same with the other half of the dough.  Refrigerate those disks for at least an hour.

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In the meantime you can prepare your fruit.  Peel and cube up about 4-5 pears and 5-6 small apples.

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Now, I decided to cook my fruit a little bit beforehand.  In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done that, as the fruit obviously cooks while in the pie.  But nevermind.

So toss your fruit with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 pinch nutmeg and 1 pinch ground cloves.

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Add in as well 2 tablespoons butter and 1/4 cup brown sugar.

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And 2 tablespoons flour.

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Now, when your dough is chilled and ready you can start rolling it out for your pie pan.  I took this nifty tip from Smitten Kitchen to roll the dough (which, with the vodka, will be slightly stickier) between two pieces of plastic wrap.  It certainly saves chipping up cemented flour on your countertop.

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The Pie helped with the manual labour. Just make sure to remove the folds in the plastic wrap as you roll. It makes everything smoother.

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Oh, and preheat your oven to 400°F while you’re at it.

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Fit one of the rolled out sheets of dough into your pie plate and tuck it in.  Chuck that in the fridge while you do the other one, which will be the top. The plastic wrap is a godsend here in terms of transferring the dough from one place to another. I am never using any other method.

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When you are ready to assemble the pie, take the bottom out of the fridge and toss in your fruit (cooked or uncooked, up to you).

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Flop the top piece onto the pie.  Fold the edges of the top piece under the edges of the bottom piece. Man I really wish I had more light in my kitchen. Or that my lightbox were bigger.

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Crimp the edges with your fingers or a fork and cut some holes for escaping steam.

Brush lightly with milk, and sprinkle with demerera sugar (optional).

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Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until your crust is firm and golden-brown and the innards are all bubbly.  And, as my husband says, “your pies never look all that great, but they always taste great.”  He’s not being mean — it’s true.  I make an ugly pie.

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Allow to cool on a rack and warm to serve.  What a lovely, flaky crust!

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We had ours with Fussells, a present from Fussellette.

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Ivy Vanilla Wedding Cake – Day Two

First thing to do this morning is take the white chocolate frosting and the fondant out of the fridge to come to room temperature.  Don’t forget!

Right.  So when we left off, we had just set the gum paste ivy leaves out to dry overnight. Fortunately for me, they didn’t completely dry, so I was able to cut tiny sticks of floral wire and stick them into each leaf as a stem.  Had I known how rigid and brittle dried gum paste got, I would have done this the day before, when the leaves were still flexible.  Also, the thicker the leaf, the better it worked.My plan was to wrap these new “stems” around my green licorice whip “vine” and then drape the whole thing over the cake.Of course the leaves were pretty heavy and the licorice was pretty delicate so of course the vine broke.In any case, I got all the stems in and flipped the leaves over to dry completely.My next idea was to simply drape the licorice vine over the cake, pin it in place with a few concealed floral wire “staples”, and then stick the leaves directly into the cake in strategic places.  Of course I wouldn’t get to see if my plan worked until the following day.  The tension starts to build.The worst part of decorating the cake today was that I had a medical procedure scheduled for late in the afternoon, and I wasn’t allowed to EAT ANYTHING until after it was over.  You try icing a cake and not licking your fingers.

Now, when you make a tiered cake you need to give it support so it doesn’t sag.  Not to mention the fact that a three-tiered cake is tremendously heavy, so everything has to be strong and secure.

The entire cake rests on a cake board, which you can buy at any cake or craft store.  My lovely father decided he’d make one for me out of plywood, as a cake board is essentially just a board wrapped in foil.  In addition, you need cake circles, essentially made of cardboard (though my dad used matting board here) that are exactly the size of each of your upper tiers.  They will go on the bottom of each upper tier so that you can move them around and so cutting one tier won’t result in cutting all three tiers.  It’s really amazing the amount of hidden structural material goes into a wedding cake.Now, you want to keep your cake as cold as possible, so I worked in shifts, putting each tier back into the fridge when I was finished each step.  A cold cake is stiffer and less likely to come apart on you.  Of course, the fridge I was using was downstairs in the basement and I had to negotiate several hallways in between.  As the cakes became more and more complete, my mantra became “Don’t drop it don’t drop it don’t drop it …”

First you need to level the tops of your tiers.  Use a long serrated knife to remove the round bit at the top.  To ensure a perfectly smooth top, I flipped my tiers over so the natural “pan line” was the one that showed.  I had to work super hard to get the 16″ tier to come out level.

Use some royal icing or other stiff-drying frosting (which I also purchased) and plaster some on the surface of each cake circle.  This will be your glue, and will prevent the tier from sliding off when you move the cake.I did the same with the cake board, and placed the tiers on their respective surfaces, cut-side down.Then I wrapped up the ones I wasn’t using and put them back in the fridge. Don’t drop it don’t drop it don’t drop it …I’m sure I’ve spoken to you before on the importance of a crumb coat.  It is what it sounds like: a coating of icing designed to freeze all your crumbs into place so they don’t show up on the surface of the finished cake.  So, smooth a thin layer of white chocolate frosting all over the cake and try to keep it as even as possible.  Then chuck the tiers back in the fridge for at least fifteen minutes so the frosting can firm up.

I found the smaller tiers easier to decorate if I placed them on an upside-down plate on top of an inverted bowl.  Of course, if you have a rotating cake stand then you’re ahead of the game.And a handy tool like a fondant smoother is useful when you are trying to make your sides uniform.  And on your second coat of icing, be generous.  This stuff can hide many mistakes.  Chuck the tiers in the fridge again after the second coat.  Don’t drop it don’t drop it don’t drop it …As I mentioned earlier, this cake is no lightweight.  In order to avoid a Leaning Tower of Pisa thing, we have to provide adequate structural support for each tier on top of the bottom one.  We are going to create hidden support columns for our tiers, putting them inside the cake itself.  This next part is a little weird, but you gotta trust me on this one.

Enter the Slurpee straw.Let’s ignore the fact that I had to purchase a Slurpee in order to make off with all these straws.  The key to Slurpee straws is that they’re incredibly wide, which makes your support column all the more strong.  Another plus is that they come in lurid colours, so you are unlikely to mistake them for the substance of the cake and consume them by accident.

So, you take your bottom tier.  Rest the edges of the pan of the next tier on top for a second, just to leave a wee mark in the frosting where you want the next tier to go. 

Insert the straw into the centre of your guideline, pointing straight down, press it all the way to the bottom, and remove it.  You will remove a tiny plug of cake while you do this, but don’t worry, you’re going to put it back. 

When you pull it out you can see the line that the frosting has left on the straw.  Cut the straw at this point, then cut four more sections of straw to match this length.

Return the centre column to its original position in the cake and insert the other four columns around the centre one to evenly distribute the weight.  Repeat this straw process for every tier except the top one and put the cakes carefully back in the fridge.Now we are going to start on our fondant embellishments.  Slice off some fondant with a sharp knife and knead it with your hands to make it more malleable.I used a small amount of the icing colour we used to make the ivy leaves to create this pale green.I rolled it flat and used a pizza cutter and a metal ruler to cut long strips of the stuff.These are going to form bands at the bottom of each tier.Working carefully, so as not to stretch the fondant strip, place them along the bottom of each tier.  Because my fondant was a little on the dry side, I found it easier in the end to cut the fondant strips into sections and handle them with a fondant smoother.  You can see that I’m wearing gloves in this shot to avoid putting fingerprints on the fondant.

I used the smoother to provide support as I pressed the strip portions onto the cake.

Then, with a soft paintbrush, I gently brushed on some green lustre dust for texture.Not bad, not bad.  You won’t notice all the imperfections from a distance, once the ivy is in place.Next I rolled out some white fondant and got out the French curvesI traced the edges with a sharp pointed knife and pulled away the excess fondant.

Then ever so carefully transferred the shapes to the cake.  I used the biggest curves on the bottom tier.On the top two tiers I used used the smaller curve.Now put those all in the fridge and leave them there.  More on Monday, when we put this baby together!

Christmas Fruit Cakes

My mother calls them fruit cakes.  My father calls them Christmas cakes.  Or it’s the other way around.  I can’t keep track of those two.

Nevertheless, before every holiday season, my dad makes between two and three dozen of them to give away to all their family and friends.  Being the stalwart Scots that we are, we fight over who deserves a whole cake and who gets only a slice.

You can’t be ambivalent about fruit cake.  You either love it or you hate it.  And I can promise you that this is not the leaden, dry, horribly frosted version that you hate.  This is the ooey-gooey sticky sweet and moist brick of goodness that you will LOVE.  Guaranteed.

Keep in mind that this recipe is easy to make.  Especially if you make several dozen.  However, you have to start your preparations the day before and baking time can take up to four hours for large cakes.  Not to mention that you can’t eat them right away — these cakes need a spell before they’re good to eat.  These ones here are from back in 2007.  They should be super excellent now.

Day the First:

In a large bowl, measure in 1 1/2 cups whole blanched almonds (blanched is key because the skin is bitter), 2 cups dark raisins, 2 cups light raisins, 1 cup currants, 2 1/2 cups chopped dates, and 2 1/2 cups candied citron peel.  My dad says that when making several batches it helps to bring a measuring cup to the health food or bulk store and measure what you need right into the bag so you don’t have to worry about having any leftover.

Drain a 12oz (340g) bottle of maraschino cherries, saving the juice.  The cherries should measure about 1 1/4 cups.  Add them to the mixture in the bowl.

Pour in 1/2 cup brandy (or fruit juice, if you prefer) and give it a stir.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature overnight.

In a heavy saucepan, simmer one 19oz (540mL) can crushed pineapple with 2 cups granulated sugar.  Cook, uncovered, until thickened, about 45 minutes.  Make sure to stir frequently. 

By the end, the sugary pineapple should measure 2 1/2 cups.

Let the pineapple cool, and then stir in 1/2 cup reserved cherry juice.  Stir in as well 1 cup strawberry jam (the more all-natural, the better).  This doesn’t necessarily need to be done the day before, but it has to be cool before you add it to the cake batter.

Day the Second:

Preheat your oven to 275°F.  Butter your pans (we use four regular-sized loaf pans) and line them with parchment paper.The knob on our oven is positioned badly so we take the knob off in order not to hit it accidentally.  And yes, we probably should clean our oven more often.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together 4 cups all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda.

Add about a cup of the flour mixture to the fruit and nuts and toss until the bits are all covered.  This will prevent them from sinking to the bottom when you mix them in the batter.  Set the rest of the flour aside for now. 

In another large mixing bowl, cream together  2 1/4 cups granulated sugar with 1 pound (2 cups) butter.

Beat in 12 eggs (yes, 12!), two at a time.  This is less of a pain in the butt if you have someone crack the eggs while someone else runs the mixer.

Take your flour mixture and your pineapple mixture and, alternating them, stir them into the butter and egg mix.  Make 3 dry and 2 liquid additions and stir it all in well. 

Your batter will be a lovely pink colour once you’re all ready.

Pour over your flour-coated fruit and nuts and mix well. 

Pour into your pans and chuck them in the oven.

Place a shallow pan of water on the bottom rack of the oven to keep the cakes moist.

Bake in your oven for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, for the larger cakes.  Smaller cakes might be done in about 3 hours. If you have a fast oven you might want to lay a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over the top to prevent them from drying out in the last hour or so.

The cakes should be fairly firm to the touch in the centre and should test clean with a toothpick.  Once you’ve removed the cakes from the oven let them cool in the pans for about five minutes. 

Then remove the cakes from the pans and peel off the paper.  Let the cakes cool completely.

Now you do your wrapping.

Lay a sheet of aluminum foil on your work surface.  Overlay that with some plastic wrap.

And some cheesecloth.

Plop your cake in the centre.

Baste it generously, all over, with rum or brandy (if you don’t baste you will need to keep the cakes in the refrigerator).

Wrap the cheesecloth tightly around the cake.  Then the plastic wrap.  Then the aluminum foil.

As the cloth dries out, give your cakes a periodic dousing with rum or brandy.  Don’t freeze the cakes or the flavours won’t mellow properly.

The cakes will make good eating in about three weeks, just in time for the holidays.