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Fruitcakes That Break the Mold

`IT'S better to give than to receive.''

The first man to utter that pious little adage was probably presenting some unsuspecting soul with a fruitcake he was trying to get rid of.

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There are two ways people respond to this much-maligned confection: 1) Those guests who nibble the teensiest corner, smile politely, utter an unconvincing ``Mmmmmmm'' and tuck the remains under their napkin when the host isn't looking, and 2) Those who refuse it entirely.

Pass around fruitcake at a party, and you might just as well offer plutonium.

Fruitcake has taken a bad rap that just won't go away.

The problem is those relatively inexpensive, dried-out, store-bought blocks with pieces of glow-in-the-dark fruit; the ones that, when sliced, look as though Junior has set up his electric train on the dining-room table. The only good thing about them is their packaging - tin boxes with snowy Currier & Ives scenes, perfect for packing up homemade cookies to send off to a relative in college.

But there are good fruitcakes out there. Many of the mail-order ones, stuffed tighter than a Christmas stocking with walnuts and pecans, and heavy with dried, natural-colored fruits are expensive, but usually worth it. A fine fruitcake is loaded with fine ingredients, and you pay for it.

The best, however, are the custom versions you bake yourself. These, too, are not inexpensive.

Homemade fruitcakes are not only for giving, however, they are also forgiving. That is, if you find those bright pieces of citron or candied red and green cherries especially frightening, replace them with something you do like. If you prefer golden raisins to, say, prunes, use equal amounts of them instead. Dried pineapple, apricots, currants, or best yet, dried cranberries or blueberries are wonderful. Or get even more exotic with dried mangos or papaya - or both.

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And remember, all fruitcakes don't have to be embalmed in great waves of spirits. They won't keep as long, but they won't have to. They are guaranteed to be eaten before the holidays end.

The following are two recipes sure to win raves. Ken Haedrich's Dark and Moist Cranberry-Nut Fruitcake

`This cake is particularly moist because it's made with fruit -

raisins, cranberries, and dried apricots - that have been cooked in cider. Haedrich also uses dates, precooking them in cider only if he cannot find soft Medjool dates at his local health-food store. He also says that dried cherries are excellent in this classic cake for the late fall and early winter months,' writes Moira Hodgson, in her book, `Favorite Fruitcakes.'

1 cup fresh cranberries

1 cup dark raisins

1/2 cup chopped dried apricots

1/2 cup apple cider

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup molasses

1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Finely grated peel of 1 orange

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

2/3 cup milk

1 cup chopped pitted dates

1-1/2 cups mixed chopped pecans and walnuts

1 cup fruit juice (apple, cranberry, or orange)

Put the cranberries, raisins, apricots, and cider in a medium non-aluminum pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 5 minutes, until the small amount of remaining liquid is a thick glaze. Set aside to cool.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9- or 10-inch tube or bundt pan. With an electric mixer, cream butter in a large bowl, gradually adding molasses and sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add vanilla and orange peel.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, spices, and cocoa powder into a separate bowl. Stir half the dry mixture into the butter mixture, then fold in the milk, followed by the remaining dry mixture.

Once the batter is mixed, fold in the cooked fruit, dates, and nuts. Scrape batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 55 minutes, until a tester (a knife or broom straw) inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake feels springy to the touch.

Cool cake in pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert it onto rack. Wrap it well. Store in a cool place for up to two weeks.

Serves 16 to 20. Janice Pike's White Fruitcake

2-1/2 cups cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup candied cherries (red or green)

1-1/2 cups golden raisins

1 cup canned pineapple chunks, drained

1 cup coarsely chopped blanched almonds

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

5 eggs

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 teaspoons grated orange peel

2 teaspoons grated lemon peel

Preheat oven to 275 degrees F. Grease two 8-1/2- by 4-1/2-inch loaf pans, line the sides and bottoms with heavy brown paper or foil, and butter the paper or foil.

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt, and sift them together into a large mixing bowl. Add cherries, raisins, pineapple, almonds, and walnuts, and toss to coat them with flour.

In another large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until smooth and blended. Alternately blend the combined dry mixture and eggs (two at a time) into the butter mixture in three stages (for the last addition you will have only 1 egg). Beat vigorously after each addition. Add almond extract, vanilla, and orange and lemon peels, and stir until thorougly blended.

Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake for 2 hours, or until a tester inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean.

Remove from oven and let cakes cool in pans for 30 minutes. Turn out onto a rack, peel off paper, and let cool completely.

Wrap the cakes well, and store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. These do not have the keeping qualities of dark fruitcake; if you are making them more than 2 weeks before serving, wrap well and freeze.

Serves about 12. * Recipes adapted from `Favorite Fruitcakes,' by Moira Hodgson (HarperCollins Publishers, 143 pp., $12.50)

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