An enduring tradition: Classic apple cake lives on

My recipe for farmer’s fruitcake comes from an 1889 cookbook put out by the women of the Ashland Grange No. 124 in Massachusetts.

Oliver H. Kelley founded the National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry after the Civil War in 1867. He had been sent by the Department of Agriculture to assess the agricultural methods and social conditions of farmers in the South in the war’s aftermath. He found poor management and lack of knowledge about agricultural methods as well as depleted livestock and dilapidated buildings. Kelley was a Mason and thought that a fraternal organizational structure might help bridge the divide between North and South to make the Grange a national group to aid farmers. He thought of Granges as an educational resource for farmers to learn about best agricultural practices, mechanical equipment and new varieties of seed and livestock.

Though Kelley was thinking only of men, women soon joined and found social and educational benefits in membership. The Grange was the first fraternal organization that admitted women as voting members.

The Grange successfully organized affordable life and fire insurance for farmers. The organization also provided an important social outlet for farm families and established lending libraries with leisure reading material as well as information on scientific farming.

The Ashland Grange was in apple country, only 24 miles from the birthplace of Jonathan Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed (1774-1845). By 1800, the pioneer nurseryman had started making trips to western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Like the folktale figure, he did wear ragged clothing, lug sacks of apple seeds, and keep peaceful relations with the native people he met.

But his journeys had a commercial purpose. As he walked, he looked for good land that he could buy cheaply in advance of New England farmers who were starting to move West in search of better soil. He planted groves of apple trees that he started from seed, fenced them, and hired frontier settlers to take care of them. As his trees grew and fruited, he sold the sour apples profitably as cider apples. Hard cider was a popular drink everywhere, but especially so on the frontier.

Many New England farmers planted a few apple trees to make their own cider and pies. Some of the harvested fruit was cored and sliced and hung on strings around the kitchen or attic to dry. That way a family could still have apple pies and cakes when fresh apples were no longer available.

Farmer’s fruitcake, which is made with dried apples and molasses, is related to gingerbread and is best served warm with whipped cream.

Farmer’s Fruitcake
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Farmer’s Fruitcake
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  • 2 cups dried apples water to soak apples
  • ½ cup molasses
  • ½ cup unsalted butter
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ¾ cup sour milk
  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. cloves
  • ½ tsp. ginger
  • ½ tsp. nutmeg
  • ½ tsp. salt
  1. Soak two cups of dried apples overnight in water to cover. Drain and chop the apple rings into quarters, reserving the soaking water. Simmer 1 hour in molasses with the reserved apple-soaking liquid. Take off heat, lift the apple pieces out with a slotted spoon, and allow them to cool a little. Set aside the cooking liquid for another use (the apples will have picked up enough of the molasses flavor).
  2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and flour a Bundt cake or tube pan. Cream the butter with granulated and brown sugar in a large mixing bowl. Mix in the eggs and sour milk; then stir in the apples.
  3. Sift the dry ingredients together: flour, baking soda, and spices. Stir the dry ingredients into the egg and milk mixture and mix just until no flour is visible. Pour into the tube pan and bake about 1 hour 15 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the cake comes out perfectly clean.
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