My Grandma Sue introduced me to fruit cake.

Every Christmas, she’d buy a loaf of Claxton Fruit Cake and cut it into painstakingly thin slices. She loved serving the fruit- and nut-laden loaves with a cup of coffee or tea. She had no patience for the many naysayers who made fruit cake the butt of their holiday jokes.

I thought of my grandma today. My local grocery store is decked out in its Christmas-food finery, and a huge display of Claxton fruit cakes sits precariously amid the cheese kiosk, the pizza bar and the deli counter. In a fit of nostalgia, I grabbed a loaf.

cake2Once home, I sliced through the plastic packaging and peeled off the moist, red-paper wrapper. The cake smelled like I remembered: A little eggy; a little syrupy; kind of citrusy.

It tasted like I remembered, too: Chewy from the raisins; sugary from the candied cherries; a little medicinal from the neon green and industrial yellow citron. Dense. Moist to the brink of sogginess.

The boys, husband and I snacked on Claxton Fruit Cake all afternoon. But — no offense to Grandma Sue — I probably won’t buy another. I’d like something a bit more delicate this holiday season. A treat that gives me fruit and nuts but doesn’t weigh me down. Something with a more natural citrus taste; a less processed dose of sweetness.

I think I’ve found it. This cranberry- and walnut-studded egg bread makes a perfect holiday treat. Its hefty size and burnished exterior belie the lightness within (and how easily it comes together). It isn’t 70 percent fruit and nuts, a la Claxton, but it’s perfect as a breakfast treat, a late-night snack or an accompaniment to tea.

I think Grandma Sue would approve.

thanksgiving bread

Cranberry, Walnut & Orange Bread

I started making this bread a number of years ago for Thanksgiving and — like most yeast breads — the majority of the assembly time is spent waiting. It didn’t take me long to realize this loaf is perfect for Christmas! The recipe hails from the 1999 November issue of “Bon Appetit” magazine. For a truly natural dose of citrus, substitute 1/4 cup of warm orange juice for the orange extract and reduce the amount of warm water to 1/4 cup.

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 envelopes quick-rising yeast
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons orange extract
  • 1/2 cup very warm water
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces
  • 1 large egg, beaten for a glaze

Whisk the flour, sugar and yeast together in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer.

In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, 2 eggs, melted butter and orange extract.

Pour the liquid ingredients into the flour mixture and whisk vigorously to blend. Gradually whisk in the hot water. You’ll end up with a soft, sticky dough.

Using your mixer’s dough hook, knead the dough for 7 minutes, until you have a smooth, slightly tacky dough. If it’s too wet, add a tablespoon or more of additional flour and knead 5 more minutes. While the mixer is running, add the cranberries and walnuts and knead 2-3 more minutes.

Remove the dough from the mixing bowl and form it into a ball. Place it in a large bowl that has been greased with vegetable oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm, draft-free area for 1 1/2 hours.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Punch the risen dough down, and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into four equal pieces. Set one piece aside.

Using the palm of your hands, roll the three remaining dough pieces into 13-inch ropes. Braid the ropes together, tucking the ends under. Place the braid on the parchment-lined baking sheet and brush with the egg glaze.

Divide the remaining piece of dough into three equal pieces. Roll each piece into 10-inch ropes. Braid them together, tucking the ends under. Place the small braid on top of the large braided loaf. Brush with egg glaze.

Cover the loaf with a towel and let it rise for 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Uncover the bread and brush it once more with egg glaze. Bake in the center of the oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the top is brown, the bottom is golden, and the bread sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom. Cool at least 45 minutes before slicing.

Serve as is, with butter or with jam.

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