Confession: I like fruitcake. Not the cake of my childhood, chock full of artificially colored and flavored glacéed cherries, orange peel and citron. That cake arrived in mid-December in a pretty tin (think of the postmen, lugging those weighty parcels from door to door during the holidays!) Usually the gift was from a business associate of my father’s, because, as everyone knows, friends don’t give friends fruitcake. We never did use it as a doorstop, but unwrapped it and set it out on a plate where it remained untouched for the duration of the season, a marvel of neon. Attempts to foist it upon unsuspecting visitors were rebuffed. The only real useable part of the gift was the tin. We saved it to hold the cookies we made every year.
Later in life I discovered that I am, in fact, one of the eight people on the planet who loves fruitcake, and by this I mean the cake now in fashion, made with unadulterated dried fruits, homemade candied peel and freshly roasted nuts. That fruitcake, baked and diligently doused for weeks in advance with doses of brandy, then wrapped in liquor-soaked cheesecloth in a tightly closed tin before its dénouement on Christmas Eve, is a labor of love. A labor few of us have time to undertake. And sadly, a labor that only a few recipients will ever appreciate.
Still, in the spirit of fruitcake, I am going to make these chocolate fruit and nut bars and give them to my friends. Because, despite past fruitcake experiences, I still believe in homemade gifts of food during the holidays. The tricky part is getting it right. The gift must be special. I mean, fabulous! The gift must be wrapped as beautifully as a gift from Neiman Marcus.
Most importantly, the gift must be appropriate to the recipient. We are bombarded by “treats” at this time of year, all well and good, but not for your friend who has been struggling with her weight, or cannot eat gluten, or has other dietary restrictions. One size may not fit all. Just because Ilike something (e.g., fruitcake!) doesn’t mean it will please my friend. And to top it off, it must be pleasurable to make and give. And that means preparation and packaging of such a gift must not make you feel over-extended or cranky.
As an antidote to Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all other commercial urges of the season, I highly recommend making these bars. While it may not be a one-size-fits-all affair, you can bet that almost everyone likes chocolate. Now that we know how good it is for you, it is a guilt-free pleasure, too. Add some toasted nuts, a little maple syrup and a little salt, and you could consider these babies healthy enough for snacks to bring along on errand expeditions (in moderation.) Good luck with that. Moderation poses a bit of problem, because once you start eating these bars it’s hard to stop. For that reason, I recommend wrapping them immediately, preferably individually, in festive little cellophane bags tied with sparkly ribbons, so it will take a little more effort and thought to get at them.
Chocolate fruit and nut bars
Makes 12 bars or 24 squares
The possibilities here are pretty open ended. If you have some nuts, fruit and chocolate around the house, you won’t even have to make a special trip to shop for ingredients. Several companies (Guittard, Callebaut) make bittersweet chocolate that is ready to use in the form of chips (not the same as semi-sweet chocolate chips.) If you buy chocolate in bar form, use a serrated knife to chop it in small pieces so the chocolate will melt evenly. Nuts and seeds run the gamut: whole almonds, pecans, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios, whatever strikes your fancy will do. As for the fruits: I love the little tingle of ginger in these, but any dried fruit you like, chopped in small pieces, will make a good addition. So stay home and “bake” and stay out of the stores. And oh, happy holidays to one and all!
Olive oil (for the pan)
8 ounces dark, bittersweet chocolate, chopped or in “chip” form
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups (10 ounces, 283g) mixed, unsalted, raw nuts and seeds
1/4 cup finely diced crystallized ginger
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly brush a 9 X 13-inch baking pan with oil. Cut a piece of baker’s parchment into a 9 X 16-inch rectangle, and line the pan with it. The parchment should fit on the bottom and extend up two sides of the pan. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
2. Spread the chocolate evenly over the bottom of the baking pan and bake for 3 minutes, or until the chocolate melts. Remove from the oven, and use the back of a spoon to spread the chocolate in a thin layer over the bottom of the pan. Cool for 5 minutes. Freeze for 10 minutes, or until firm.
3. Mix the maple syrup, oil, vanilla, and salt in a bowl. Add the nuts and stir to coat them. Spread them on the parchment-lined baking sheet, and bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until nuts are browned and fragrant. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes.
4. Spread the warm nuts, ginger, and cranberries evenly over the chocolate. Place the parchment paper from the baking sheet over the nuts and press firmly with your hands to embed the nuts into the chocolate. The chocolate will start melting from the heat of the nuts. (If it does not, return the pan to the oven for 1 minute.) Freeze for 10 minutes, or until the chocolate hardens.
5. Using the parchment paper ends as handles, lift the bars out of the baking pan and place in one piece on a cutting board. Use a sharp, heavy knife to cut the bars into twelve 2 by 4-inch rectangles. Cut each rectangle in half to form squares if you would like smaller pieces. Store in a cool place in an airtight tin between layers of waxed paper. Wrap each bar in a small cellophane bag and tie with a festive ribbon.