This time, I knew right away what I would make. No indecision, no wavering -- I had this one ready to go, in more ways than one. As soon as Sam (doyenne of Becks & Posh) posted the theme of Low Sugar for Sugar High Friday's 15th installment, I was raring to get started. This month's challenge for dessert lovers and makers was to use as little refined sugar as possible -- perhaps none at all -- and to present a sweet that would still satisfy.
As you're probably aware by now, I adore opulent desserts. I don't like anything that's super sweet, but there's no question that I'm overly fond of my share of caramelly flavors, plenty of dark chocolate, and boy-oh-boy, do I love things rich. Heavy cream, butter, crème fraîche -- the sinuous, lush combination of creamy and sweet is what's for dessert, as far as I'm concerned.
But I do have one dessert morsel in my arsenal that not only contains no refined sugar -- it also has no butter, no cream, no oils. And it's one of the most popular desserts I make. What does this modest little miracle contain? It's a simple yet compelling confection with the chewy sweetness of dried fruit and a bit of honey, balanced with a crisp counterpoint of toasty walnuts (which are the only source of fat in this dessert).
It's not fruitcake. It sort of looks like it could be one, and I always have to tell people "It's not fruitcake." After one bite, they get it. I discovered this moderately healthy dessert miracle many years ago at an almost forgotten workplace. My office was hosting a reception, and one of my co-workers brought me a slice of something she'd baked for the occasion. "Eat this," Ronnie said to me. "I don't eat fruitcake," I told her, trying to fend off the advances of this dark baked thing and its maker. I wanted to be off in search of some other sort of dessert platter, filled with cream puffs or brownies. "It's not fruitcake." I still must have looked hesitant. "Just try it," she insisted. She was a large, imposing, pushy sort of gal, and it seemed that my only way toward any other part of the room would be to take a bite of this fruitcakey-looking thing, so I did. "Wow." My senses were flooded with the perfect balance of tanginess and sweetness, and then the happy chew and crunch factors kicked in. My reaction was immediate. "Ronnie, can I please have that recipe?" Having made several of the loaves that day, she knew it by heart.
Since then I've never looked back. I make several of these loaves every holiday season, and I slice them into neat bars to go on platters and nestle alongside more lavish sugarplums like chocolate-dipped espresso shortbread and pecan butterballs. Despite their proximity to those sexier sweeties, they always end up being sought-after. Workmates say "Are there any more of those fruity chewy nutty things?" My friend Ernie, a fabulous baker who introduced me to my favorite scented madeleines, is mad for them. When I did a cookie-swap by mail several years ago, sending out a dozen different sweets to a dozen people I'd never met, this was the most requested recipe.
A slice of this virtuous cake will be your best friend when you're home alone with a hot cup of tea, curled up on the sofa on a chilly, windy, rainy afternoon. But don't just leave this little loaf at home -- despite its shyness, it really does know how to socialize. I bring these sweet slices to parties and at first, they seem like the lonely wallflowers on the platter, watching as the florentines and dulce-de-leche bars are asked to dance. But then someone gives them a whirl, word gets out, and their popularity is no longer in doubt.
There's a lesson in there somewhere. Like a Wallflower Loaf, we should all just be our modest, innocent, sweet selves. Soon, soon, we'll be discovered and appreciated for the very subtlety of our charms.
adapted from Ronnie, wherever she may be
The challenge here is to regulate the baking of this loaf. It does have a bit of a tendency to burn, due to the honey in the batter and the dates that press up against the sides of the pan and blacken too soon. Watch it carefully -- you want the center of the loaf to get completely cooked before the edges get burned. I sometimes cook it for longer at a lower heat, but this depends on your oven. If it does burn slightly on the sides and bottom, don't worry. Wait till it's completely cool, and then use a thin serrated knife to shave off the burnt parts. Once it's cut into lovely mosaic slices, no-one will ever know the difference.
I generally use Turkish apricots and Medjool dates. California apricots would be tangier, but not as soft and lush.
1 1/2 cups apricots
2 cups dates
3 cups walnuts
(all in big pieces)
3/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup wildflower honey (any fragrant, flowery honey works well here)
1 tsp. vanilla
Grated zest of 1 orange, or 1/2 tsp. orange oil
Combine coarsely chopped fruits and nuts in a large bowl. Combine dry ingredients and whisk together in a small bowl. Beat honey, eggs, vanilla and orange zest or oil together. Combine lightly with dry ingredients to make a thick batter. Mix into bowl of fruits and nuts until they appear thinly coated with batter. It will seem to you that there's barely enough batter to cover the fruits and nuts, but don't worry -- the batter rises up around them. Press the mixture lightly into a greased, parchment-lined 9" x 5" loaf pan. Bake at 350F. for approximately an hour, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool completely. Slice thinly and serve, or cut each slice into small bars before serving.
Optional additions to the batter are cinnamon and/or freshly grated nutmeg. Lately I prefer the simple purity of nut and fruit, with no extraneous flavors.