If you were to travel to Cyprus over the Christmas period, expecting to experience some interesting traditions, unique to the Greek population of the south part of the island, you will probably be disappointed. Christmas in Cyprus is pretty much like Christmas everywhere else. There are Christmas trees and Santa Claus (St. Basil, as he’s known in Greek) and Christmas carols (exactly the same but with Greek lyrics) and tons of shopping. The only things that are perhaps somewhat unique are the traditional stuffed turkey served on Christmas day and the two typical types of cookies made for the season: kourambiedes (very similar to mexican wedding cookies) and melomakarona (cookies soaked in a spiced honey syrup).
And then there is Christmas cake, one of the unfortunate leftover traditions from the decades of British rule over the island. It’s a dense, dense, DENSE fruit cake/brick, loaded with dried and candied fruits and nuts, covered with marzipan and then a hard, white icing on top. Before the icing solidifies, the cake is decorated with small Christmas decorations. Almost everyone hated Christmas cakes when I was a kid. And yet, every house would make one or buy one from a patisserie. The only thing we liked as kids was the moment we got to place the tiny decorations over the cake just after my mom iced it, or eating the thin layer of marzipan under that icing.
I guess fruit cakes are just not popular anywhere. In the U.S. they are always the butt of the joke. It’s a shame because a well-made cake with dried fruit and nuts can be wonderful. It doesn’t have to be dark as night or require a hacksaw to cut through it. This recipe is for such a cake. It’s a little boozy and it gets some of its sweetness as well as its tenderness from mashed sweet potatoes. The dried apricots and raisins provide both sweet and tart flavors and the roasted pecans round everything out. The original recipe, from David Lebovitz who adapted it from Alice Medrich, calls for a cream cheese frosting, but I love it just by itself. Perhaps it can become the new and improved Christmas cake.
Sweet Potato Cake with Apricots and Raisins – Slightly adapted from David Lebovitz
Makes 2 8-inch loaf cakes
1/3 cup (2 ounces, 57g) finely-diced dried apricots, preferably California
1/3 cup (2 ounces, 57g) raisins
1/2 cup (125ml) white vermouth
2 cups (8 oz, 225g) flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (90g) packed light or dark brown sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg and 1 large egg white, at room temperature
1 cup (240g) sweet potato puree
1 cup (125g) toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
First, marinate apricot pieces and raisins in vermouth for about 30 minutes. Drain, pressing the apricots gently to extract all the liquid. Reserve the liquid.
Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC.) Grease with non-stick spray or butter two 8-inch (20cm) loaf pans.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl using a flexible spatula or spoon, cream the butter with the granulated and brown sugars, and lemon zest, until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and the egg white and combine thoroughly. If using a stand mixer, stop the mixer and scrape down the side to make sure everything is incorporated. (The mixture may look curdled, which is fine.)
Mix in half of the flour mixture, then the drained vermouth and sweet potato puree, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Stop mixer as soon as they are incorporated (do not overmix). Stir in the nuts and apricots with a spatula.
Divide the batter into the prepared pans, smooth the tops, and bake about 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes before removing onto cooling racks and cooling completely.