February 1, 2023

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Japanese fruit cake, a Southern Christmas classic

Japanese fruit cake, a Southern Christmas classic

As I begin this story, I hear the old Mike Myers Saturday Night Live “Coffee Talk” character, Linda Richman, in my head.

“Japanese fruit cake is neither Japanese, nor fruit cake. Discuss.”

I had never heard of this cake before. But more interesting than this is that Trina Gregory-Propst hadn’t either.

I reached out to her, and several other Orlando pastry pros, in the wake of an email a reader had sent. I get lots of these. All different kinds. And I love them. This one came from a gent seeking a recipe for the Christmas dessert of his childhood.

“I grew up in the north Georgia town of Dalton,” he wrote, where at Christmas, the most popular dessert was the Japanese fruit cake.

“It was not a fruit cake as we normally think of them,” he told me, describing a contrasting four-layer cake that alternated between white and spice. “It had gooey pineapple and coconut icing. It was delicious.”

And so, came a holiday request: “Could you publish an article about it in your Cooking & Eating section of the Sentinel? I would love to have my wife make it for Christmas. Thanks.”

None of the other bakers I’d contacted had heard of the cake, either. But for Gregory-Propst, chef/owner of Se7enbites – whose restaurant’s menu seeps butter and sausage gravy from every Southern pore — learning about it was compulsory.

“I was like, ‘What the hell?! How have I never made this before?!’” she said, laughing.

Nostalgic cakes are kind of her thing.

“I love taking something people love and finding a modern way to do it, thinking about what ingredients and techniques and processes we have available now that they didn’t have back then. How can I stay true to the Southern way, but make it something that people would enjoy today?”

She went straight to her Southern Cake Cookbook.

“If it was going to be anywhere, it was there. And sure enough, it was.”

Chef Trina Gregory-Propst at Se7en Bites bakery holds her interpretation of the southern classic —if oddly named— Japanese fruit cake, Thursday, December 15, 2022.  (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

What did she learn?

“It’s President Jimmy Carter’s favorite cake for one,” she told me. “A definite Georgia original, hence the pecans. And back then (it’s a cake borne of the early 20th Century), the only dried fruits they had access to were raisins. The spice layer had both.”

For Round One, Gregory-Propst baked the cake exactly as the recipe had been written. It was small, but admittedly Southern in its foundation, she says, all butter and milk, “but it was awful,” she laughs. “Perhaps one of the worst cakes I’ve ever made or tasted. The fat-to-flour ratio made it eat like a hockey puck.”

And so, she Se7enbites’d it up, doubling the butter and tripling the vanilla (”I like punch-you-in-the-mouth flavors,” she says). And while she stuck with the spices, she bumped those ingredients up a few notches, too, throwing in some extras for the spice cake: Medjool dates, tart dried cherries, crystallized ginger, all of which got a fine chop.

The frosting — really more of a glaze made thick and chunky by the coconut and pineapple — is the easiest part, she says.

“Poke holes in the cake as you layer it and it’s going to soak down in between those layers,” she says, noting that bourbon or rum could be a nice add to the frosting’s flavor mix, as well. “There are so many things you could do with this cake.”

Done in what bakers call “naked” style — this is when the cake is unfrosted, its layers open and visible — the one-inch cake tiers in contrasting colors with textural frosting between, make a gorgeous presentation. And though the frosting is thick and sweet, the cake itself is relatively low in sugar and so very balanced.

It’s gorgeous and fruity and hardly the doorstop fruit cake we’ve come to associate with Christmas. But it isn’t Japanese.

“There is nothing of the Far East about it except the spices, none of which is Japanese in origin.” according to a 2015 piece in Smoky Mountain Living magazine.

From Se7en Bites bakery, chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s interpretation of the southern classic —if oddly named— Japanese fruit cake, Thursday, December 15, 2022.  (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

“I think cinnamon and allspice may have qualified as ‘exotic’ back then,” Gregory-Propst theorizes.

It’s not exotic to that reader, whose wife may be fielding a special request when this piece hits print. Rather a taste of home.

For Gregory-Propst, it was even more.

“This was the first time in a long time I’ve made something that felt fresh and new to me,” she said, invoking her grandmother, with whom she’d often bake and play with recipes.

“Christmas was my Grammie’s favorite holiday. All the baking and cooking really made it special for her,” she said. “This challenge, baking something I’d never baked before … making changes and adjustments was like having my Grammie right here with me….

“It was such a treat to feel that excitement of Christmas again, since this is the season when I lost her. It’s been like having my own Christmas angel.”

Want to reach out? Find me on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or Instagram @amydroo or on the OSFoodie Instagram account @orlando.foodie. Email: [email protected]. For more fun, join the Let’s Eat, Orlando Facebook group or follow @fun.things.orlando on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

From Se7en Bites bakery, chef Trina Gregory-Propst’s interpretation of the southern classic —if oddly named— Japanese fruit cake, with bowls of ingredients.

Recipe courtesy Trina Gregory-Propst

You will make this recipe twice once with all the spices and mix-ins (spice cake), once without (vanilla cake).

Ingredients

For vanilla cake:

16 oz. unsalted butter, softened

2 cups sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla

4 eggs

1 cup milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 tablespoon salt

For spice cake, all of the above plus:

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1tablespoon ground cloves

2 tablespoons allspice

1/2 cup golden raisins, chopped

1/2 cup dried tart cherries, chopped

1/2 cup pitted dates, chopped

1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped

1/2 cup pecans, chopped

Instructions

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Cream softened butter until smooth

3. Add sugar and vanilla and continue creaming until light and smooth

4. Add eggs. Mix until combined, scraping down sides of bowl as you go

5. Using separate bowl, whisk dry ingredients together.

6. Add half the dry mix into butter mixture. Combine. Then add milk and incorporate balance of dry mix.*

6a. For spice cake batter, add in spices and mix-ins.

7. For optimal results, spray four 9-inch round pans with pan release (cooking spray) and use parchment rounds to ensure easy cake release.

8. Pour batter evenly into pans.

9. Bake 24-28 minutes or until done, rotating halfway through.

10. Remove from oven . Cool in pans 10 minutes, remove, cool completely on wire racks before stacking and glazing.

Ingredients: Frosting Glaze

Can be made with oranges or lemons. Substitute one for the other or do a combination of both.

3 tablespoons cornstarch

2 cups water, divided

2 1/2 cups sugar

Zest from one lemon or orange

5 tablespoons lemon or orange juice

4 cups coconut coconut, grated

1 cup crushed pineapple, drained (optional)

Directions

1. Dissolve cornstarch in 1/2 cup water; set aside.

2. Bring remaining 1 1/2 cups water to boil in medium saucepan. Stir in sugar, lemon/orange rind and lemon/orange juice.

3. Return to boil and cook to soft ball stage* (236˚), stirring often. Cooking over medium heat, gradually adding cornstarch mixture (add pineapple at this time if desired), stirring constantly, until mixture is thickened and bubbly.

4. Remove from heat; stir in coconut. Cool. Stir frosting just before spreading on cake.

5. Stir frosting just before spreading on cake, layering in between all four layers. Allow excess to drip down sides.

*Soft ball stage refers to a specific temperature range when cooking sugar syrups. You may use a candy thermometer or determine status by dropping a spoonful of hot syrup into a bowl of very cold water.