Robert Lambert with Buddhas Hands citrus

Issue No. 118: Robert Lambert Talks Fruit Cakes

Over the years that I’ve been making fruit cakes, I’ve been asked to modify them for the health regimen or the passing fancy—possibly both—of any number of customers. Don’t change the taste, just make it vegan. Or gluten-free. Just leave out the eggs. The butter. Or the flour. The salt for one with heart problems, the sugar for a diabetic, the nuts for the allergic, the booze for the alcoholics and the corn syrup for the fools. Their ideal cake would be an empty bag.

That said, every season I do try to make some improvement.

Over the last 10 years I’ve moved away from keeping ingredients whole, which I liked visually, to cutting to sizes that will insure better distribution in the batter and in the slice. The walnuts went to pieces first, blanched and toasted to cut their bitter oil and intensify flavor. Two years ago I started hand-cutting each Brazil nut into pieces no bigger than a marble. Each nut’s a different size and needs a different cut, no other way to do it. In a further move to atomize ingredients, this year I’m using diced pineapple. I used to cut the rings into wedges by hand, but couldn’t control the length of the pieces—now they’re all the same.

The prunes and dates are hand cut to identical pieces; the figs too, then soaked for weeks in the finest Pear William brandy to plump them. The firm bergamot and Rangpur lime peels need to be sliced razor-thin, while bigger chunks are good for grapefruit, blood orange or Buddha’s hand citrus. Ratios of the peels fluctuate from year to year depending on availability, or disappear entirely, as with the yuzu peel I once used, and provide each vintage with its own particular nuance.

I don’t think it’s ever a mistake to improve a product, even if it costs me.

Starting this year the classic pure lemon flavor of Lisbon lemon peel will be replacing the Meyer lemon in the White cake. The Dark cake this season contains mandalo peel, a variety of pommelo, and both Dark and White contain shekwasha, a rare Japanese aromatic of which I am particularly fond. Tangy and voluptuous, a fruity, floral, tropical flavor with notes of lemon and pineapple, as unique as jasmine or magnolia—shekwasha is an unforgettable addition to the symphony of flavors these cakes embrace. Both the shekwasha and mandalo come from the Gene Lester citrus collection, and I never know when I’ll be able to get more.

The biggest innovation is a further honing of the baking process itself, the final assembly of elements I’ve been shepherding along all year, from picking fruit to processing to cutting. I’ve always weighed out the nuts and peels ahead, but for the first time I pre-weigh and measure everything, down to the salt. My eyes and my hands work as one, no thoughts disrupt the actions. It is devotion to making, and is essentially devotional, a meditation stripped of excess.

And then there are the vintage cakes.

I wasn’t the first to keep a fruit cake for years, but perhaps the first to understand its value and offer it to customers. Not with any scientific claims do I assert that an aged fruit cake tastes better than a fresh one, but I have theories. Over time flavors radiate out on the moisture of the fruits and peels, intersect and form new flavor compounds. This intensifies complexity.