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Sunday, December 8, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Taste

Pass It On: This is fruitcake you'll eat — really

"You only have to make it once," they say. "Then it just gets handed down from generation to generation." Or, "If you don't like it, you can always use it as a door stop."

But there is one fruitcake so good that no one jokes about it. When it's discussed at all, it's whispered about in hushed tones that border on reverence. And I have become known, in my own small circle, as the guy who makes the fruitcake.

As if they were discussing some illicit drug, my friends want to know, "Did you bring any this year? We've come to depend on it, you know."

This cake is not only edible, but remarkably so. It's too small and too good-looking to be used as a doorstop. And while the cake itself will definitely not be passed down from generation to generation, the recipe probably will be.

It's an adaptation of "Oxford Fruitcake" from renowned baking instructor Nick Malgieri. Malgieri, whose new book "Perfect Cakes" (Harper Collins, 2002) contains an entire chapter on fruitcake, directs the baking program at The Institute of Culinary Education, formerly known as Peter Kump's Cooking School in New York. He procured the recipe from one Daphne Giles, the British sister-in-law of a childhood friend named Noel, who used to make it every year for Noel's Christmas birthday. I took one look at the picture in Malgieri's book "How to Bake" (Harper Collins, 1995) and decided then and there that it would become a tradition in my family. So far, I haven't missed a Christmas.

Part of what makes it good is a plethora of real dried fruit and a corresponding dearth of candied fruit — those bits of emerald-green citron and stoplight-red cherries — that even in the garish light of Christmas can be disconcerting. Nick kept them to a minimum, using raisins, currants, dates and dried figs in their place. And even though Nick wailed "Oh no!" when I told him so, I replaced the remaining bit of candied fruit with Washington-grown dried cherries and my own candied orange peel. In a fit of allegiance to my West Coast sensibilities, I also slipped in a few macadamia nuts.

But the most appealing aspect of this cake is the way it looks, which hasn't really changed a bit with my slight variations. Sandwiched between sheets of marzipan and individually wrapped in two-inch squares, the cake is nothing like the weird stuff your Great Aunt Alice passed around after Christmas dinner in the 1970s. It looks, in fact, nothing like it, and if anyone you know has been too traumatized by fruitcakes past to even try the stuff, don't tell them it's fruitcake at all. Just call it candy.

Ultimate Fruitcake

Makes one 10-by-16-inch cake

For the fruit foundation

8 ounces dried figs, stemmed and cut into pieces
8 ounces pitted date pieces
8 ounces candied orange peel in 1/8-inch strips
8 ounces raisins
8 ounces golden raisins
8 ounces dried currants
4 ounces dried sweetened cherries
4 ounces dried pineapple
4 ounces walnut halves
4 ounces macadamia nuts
4 ounces whole almonds
1/2 cup dark rum

For the cake batter

2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 pound butter at room temperature
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 large eggs

For the marzipan

1 pound almond paste
1 pound powdered sugar
1/3 cup corn syrup

For the syrup

2/3 cup corn syrup
1/3 cup dark rum

1. Toss the fruits and nuts with 1/2 cup of rum, cover and let rest overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 300. Butter an 11-by-17-inch pan and line it with baker's parchment.

3. Whisk the flour with the baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, baking soda and cloves. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the butter and brown sugar and, one a time, stir in the eggs. Add the dry ingredients all at once to the butter and egg mixture and stir until the batter is smooth. Pour the batter over the fruit and nut mixture, fold everything together thoroughly and scrape into the buttered pan.

4. Press a piece of parchment over the top of the batter and bake it for 50 to 60 minutes, or just until the cake is firm. (Do not over-bake, or the cake will be hard and the sugar in the fruit will caramelize and turn bitter.) Cool the cake in the pan on a rack.

5. Make the marzipan in a food processor, pulsing the almond paste, powdered sugar and corn syrup together to form a soft dough. Knead the dough until it's smooth and keep it covered with plastic wrap until you're ready to top the cake.

6. Stir the corn syrup and rum together and brush the top of the cake with half of the syrup.

7. Roll half the marzipan into a rectangle the same size as the fruitcake, drape it over the surface of the cake and press down to make it stick. Invert the cake out of the pan onto a clean surface and brush the other side with the remaining syrup. Roll out the remaining marzipan and press it onto the second side of the cake.

8. Trim a half-inch from each side of the cake, cut it into 40 two-inch squares and wrap each square in plastic wrap. The wrapped pieces of cake keep refrigerated for several weeks or, frozen, several months.

— Adapted from Nick Malgieri's Oxford Fruitcake in "How to Bake"

Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood. He is also author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999).

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