A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of appearing on Tracy Briggs’ “The Scoop” video series, which airs on Inforum.com. We put on our church lady hats, got into the right “Let’s make some Cheez Wiz sandwiches for Hjelmer Sygvurdsson’s funeral” frame of mind, and got our Lutheran on. (Technically, I am not a Lutheran, but I support any faith that is so devoted to food.)
Our goal was to try out a few old recipes in the 1926 “Lutheran Home Cook Book,” which had been published by the First Lutheran Ladies’ Aid to help raise money for what was then the Lutheran Children’s Home-Finding Society, now better known as Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The old cookbook has been republished to help commemorate LSS’s 100 years of service to North Dakotans.
We had a lot of fun, but I sort of felt like I had cut some corners. My original goal, you see, was to try the book’s weirdest recipe: Pork Fruitcake. The thought of taking one of the world’s most maligned desserts and enriching it with pig fat seemed so bizarre, so potentially disastrous, and yet so… irresistible.
But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. For one thing, it meant tracking down salt pork. I had no idea how to do that, beyond time-traveling back to Walnut Grove, where I could also stock up on back bacon, hardtack and cornmeal from Oleson’s Mercantile.
For another, the recipe just seemed too… weird. Sure, a properly crisped and candied hunk of bacon can taste surprisingly good in a dessert, but this recipe required chopping up the uncured fat from salt pork and using it as the only fat in the dish.
I just couldn’t get myself to go whole hog. I had to draw the line at swine.
Even so, that recipe has continued to nag me with an insistent oink. I read a few blogs on pork fruitcakes, and discovered some surprising things: They belonged to a category of dessert known as “war cakes,” which were developed to satisfy the sweet tooth without using up precious wartime commodities like butter, milk and eggs.
They typically included lots of raisins, fruits, molasses and spice, along with butter substitutes ranging from lard to tomato soup to bacon fat.
The Duchess of Windsor Wallis Warfield may have only weighed 37 pounds, but she loved making fried chicken and, yes, pork fruitcake. In fact, her recipe for the latter was included in her wartime cookbook, “Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor.” Considering that Edward VIII chose to abdicate his crown to spend his life with her, that had to be some pretty swell fruitcake.
I had to try it. I learned via Facebook crowdsourcing that the Northport Hornbacher’s does indeed sell salt pork, which they keep in the frozen meats section. The recipe called for citron, which apparently is an old-school type of lemon prized for its very thick, fragrant lumpy peel. I couldn’t find it, so I bought a couple of perfect-looking lemons.
As suspected, the most nauseating part of the process was breaking down the fatback. It wasn’t supposed to contain a trace of the rind or the lean, so I intently hacked away at those, then gave the remaining mess a good workout in the food processor.
After that, I dumped boiling water on it and stirred it, all in the hopes of making it more lard-worthy. Instead, it turned into a queasy cocktail of pink-ish foam. Fighting the urge to gag, I quickly mixed in the fruits and molasses.
I decided camouflage would be our only saving grace, so I doubled down on the spices and added vanilla extract. I substituted the white sugar with the more complex taste of brown sugar. The recipe hadn’t called for walnuts, but I added them, in hopes of masquerading any unwelcome traces of piggishness.
The batter was thick, lumpy with fruits and nuts, chocolate-brown and smelled heavenly. But for the first time in my life, I had zero interest in licking the bowl.
Like many fruitcakes, the bake was done in a “slow” oven (about 300 degrees), and it took forever. After much “hamming” and hawing, I removed it after two hours. (I think I could have baked it even longer.)
As I prepared myself to sample it, I wondered if my colleagues appreciated what I was doing for my craft. Surely, I deserved a Pulitzer Prize, if not a Pulled-Porkitzer Prize for this. Would it be my swine song?
The verdict: It actually wasn’t disgusting. The molasses, spices and walnuts did a nice job of camouflaging the true identity of the fat source, making it taste like mostly like fruitcake — which many people think is a crime in itself. However, I tried not to examine what I was eating too thoroughly, as I occasionally detected just a hint of squeal in the aftertaste.
If you’re a brave diner, you might want to try it too.
Adapted from “The Lutheran Home Cook Book,” www.lssnd.org/product/
1 pound salt pork, entirely free from lean or rind, ground or chopped in food processor until it’s almost like lard
Pour 1 cup boiling water on pork and stir well.
Stir in: 1 pound chopped raisins (or dried cranberries), 1 cup chopped walnuts, ¼ pound citron, sliced fine (I used peel of 2 lemons), 2 cups sugar, 1 cup molasses, 1 “small” tablespoon cinnamon (whatever that means), 1 teaspoon (or more) of EACH: baking soda, cloves and nutmeg, and 1 full tablespoon of good-quality vanilla extract.
Now add enough flour to make a stiff batter (somewhere between 3 ½ and 4 cups) and mix well.
Pour into greased loaf pans (I used one big one, but I think two smaller pans would work better) and bake at 300 degrees until it’s done “bacon.”
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at email@example.com.