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Fruitcakes are a divisive Christmas tradition in many households.

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People have a love-hate relationship with fruitcake. Mine is definitely love. The holidays are not the same without it. Here is a guide to making fruitcake, including my go-to, a recipe for a last-minute one.

Use dried fruits interchangeably. Combine them or use just one. Sultanas, currants, any variety of seedless raisins, apricots, figs, dates, glacé cherries, pineapple, pears and peaches all work well. Dried cranberries, cherries, blueberries and even strawberries can also used. Use scissors to make short work of cutting any dried fruit. Candied peels – orange, lemon and citron (a type of lemon peel) – are also interchangeable.

Include whichever nuts you enjoy. Traditionally, almonds and walnuts are the most popular. If you prefer not to use nuts, add more fruit.

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Dust the fruit and nuts with some of the flour from the recipe before adding to prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the cake.

Sherry, brandy, Scotch, liqueurs, wine and even beer can be used to flavour Christmas cakes. If you prefer not to use alcohol, substitute fruit juice or orange syrup.

Butter, margarine or shortening are interchangeable, but butter gives the richest taste.

Use all-purpose or self-rising flour, because cake and pastry isn’t heavy enough to hold the fruit together. To make your own self-rising flour, add 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt to 1 cup all-purpose flour.

Baking pans can be any shape or material, but avoid black pans, which absorb heat and tend to caramelize the fruit. Small loaf pans are the ideal size for gifts.

Butter or oil the pans, and line with parchment paper to make removing the cake easier. Cooking sprays also work. Fruitcakes are usually baked for a long time at low temperatures so that they cook evenly. Cool the cakes, then unmould and wrap in a liquor-soaked cheesecloth. Wrap in foil for storage. Every week, resoak cheesecloth and rewrap cakes.

Most cakes need a month to ripen, but the following recipe can be made the day before. It is mostly boozy fruit held together with cake batter. The cake has no nuts (although you can add them). The secret is to marinate the fruit for five days and then finish the cake.

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Combine 6 cups of your favourite dried fruits with ½ cup each chopped dried figs and candied orange peel. Sprinkle in ½ tsp each ground cinnamon, salt and nutmeg, ¼ tsp each cloves and allspice. Stir in 1½ cups booze, such as a mixture of rum, brandy, port and Cointreau (I usually use whatever is in the ends of bottles), plus 1/3 cup water. Leave to marinate for 5 days, stirring once a day. When ready to bake, beat together 1 cup unsalted butter that’s been softened, and ½ cup demerara sugar until well mixed. Gradually beat in 4 eggs, one at a time. Fold in 1½ cups self-rising flour and 1 tsp vanilla. Fold in all the fruit along with any soaking liquid. Divide between two 8-inch greased and parchment-lined cake pans. Cover top with parchment to stop the fruit from caramelizing. Bake at 275 F for 2 hours or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Need some advice about kitchen life and entertaining? Send your questions to lwaverman@globeandmail.com.

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