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Fruity butter cake with dried figs, raisins and walnuts

Time 2 hours
Yields Serves 9 to 12
Fruity butter cake with dried figs, raisins and walnuts
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)
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Imagine turning Tax Day into a holiday. That’s what happened with Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat, which is Thursday.

During the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Tu Bishvat was the date for determining the age of fruit trees in order to calculate how much tax was owed on the harvest. After the temple was destroyed about 2,000 years ago and most of the Jews were exiled, Tu Bishvat became a festival celebrated by eating fruit associated with the land of Israel.

In the Talmud, Tu Bishvat is called the New Year of Trees, and some attribute religious meaning to the occasion. They believe that on Tu Bishvat, it is decided how well the trees will grow in the coming year (like Rosh Hashanah, the day of divine judgment, for humans).

However, in the early 1900s, Jews living in Palestine began planting trees for the holiday and this custom took hold. Today, the holiday is mainly a cultural celebration marked by tree planting ceremonies at schools rather than a religious event, a sort of Jewish Earth Day.

This year, there will be poignancy in the Tu Bishvat festivities because of the Mt. Carmel forest fire in Israel in December, in which dozens of people died and thousands of acres of land were scorched. Emphasis will be placed on rehabilitation and restoration of the forest.

Dried fruits popular

The most popular way to honor the holiday, which some call the Festival of Fruit, is to serve a Tu Bishvat tray with an enticing selection of dried fruits and nuts, a custom that pleases nutritionists, vegetarians and lovers of raw foods. Dried fruit is highlighted because Tu Bishvat takes place in January or February, traditionally not the time when fruits ripen, though fresh fruits are included too.

For cooks, the holiday is a good reminder of the value of dried fruits. Their flavor is the concentrated essence of the fruit and their texture makes them particularly useful in sweets and baked goods.

Biblical fruits, notably grapes, figs, pomegranates and dates, get priority on the Tu Bishvat table. A custom in some households is to serve 15 kinds of fruits to allude to the holiday’s date. Oranges are featured because they have long been grown in Israel.

Almonds are associated with Tu Bishvat not only because they are mentioned in the Torah but also because the almond tree is considered the herald of Tu Bishvat. “The almond tree is flowering,” begins a popular Israeli children’s Tu Bishvat song, and continues, “Tu Bishvat has arrived, the holiday of trees.”

As a child in Washington, D.C., my first experience of Tu Bishvat was at Hebrew school, where the teacher gave us pieces of carob to taste and said it was fruit from the Holy Land. We felt sorry for Israeli children, thinking that this hard, dry fruit was what they had to eat. Years later, I learned that eating carob was a Tu Bishvat custom in Eastern Europe because the hardy fruit traveled well and there weren’t many other fruits available.

Wine has a place

Wine aficionados have a good reason to look forward to Tu Bishvat. A custom started in the Middle Ages by Kabbalists in what is now Israel of having a Tu Bishvat Seder somewhat similar to the Passover Seder has recently been revived. This ceremony calls for tasting four glasses of wine, along with fruits and nuts to symbolize the four seasons.

And then there are such time-honored Tu Bishvat treats as compotes of apricots and prunes, cakes studded with fruits and nuts and bar cookies with raisins, dates and sweet spices. Some Israelis sweeten their cakes with date or carob syrup or serve citrus fruit salads with dried fruit.

For this kid-friendly festival, there are plenty of sweets that children enjoy preparing, such as chocolate raisin coconut candies. One particular favorite is a sweet challah kugel with dried cherries and almonds.

1

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a nonstick 9-inch-square baking pan, tapping the pan to remove excess flour. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl.

2

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in the honey. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well until fully incorporated. After you add the third egg, the batter will look separated; it will come together when you add the flour. Beat in 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture at low speed.

3

Beat in the lemon and orange zests and vanilla. With a wooden spoon, stir in the remaining flour mixture in 3 portions; the batter will be thick. Stir in the figs, raisins and chopped walnuts.

4

Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan, using a spatula if needed. Bake until the cake is golden and a cake tester or a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven but keep the oven heated.

5

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes.

6

While the cake is cooling, make the garnish: Spread the walnut pieces onto a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven (still at 350 degrees) until they are fragrant and slightly darker in color, about 5 minutes. Transfer the walnuts to a plate to cool, and turn off the oven. Chop the walnuts finely.

7

After 15 minutes, remove the cake from the pan. Turn the cake out onto the rack, and cool completely before glazing it.

8

Make the glaze: Heat the preserves with 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring, until the mixture just begins to bubble, about 10 minutes. Strain the mixture, pressing on the fruit pieces. You will need one-half cup glaze.

9

The glaze should have the fluidity of warm maple syrup; if it is too thick, heat it briefly in the saucepan with 1 or 2 tablespoons more water. If it is too thin, simmer it over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 2 or 3 minutes to reduce and thicken it. Pour the finished glaze over the cake and brush it evenly over the top. Sprinkle the cake with the chopped toasted walnuts.

10

Set the cake aside for about 30 minutes before serving. To serve, cut it in square or oblong pieces.

Like brownies, this rich, square, low cake is best cut in square- or bar-shaped portions for serving at parties, so that people won’t feel guilty about enjoying this treat -- if they can stop at a single piece! Use moist figs and raisins. If they are dry, soak them for 2 or 3 minutes in hot water, drain them thoroughly and pat them dry. Be sure the walnuts are fresh; taste them before using in the cake.