Sarah Kieffer, Minneapolis blogger and author of Baking for the Holidays, set out to create the fruitcake of her dreams. Mission accomplished! These super-moist cakes eat like elegant patisserie and are worth every minute of the process.
For cherries: Measure the juices from the thawed cherries. Add water, if needed, to reach 1/2 cup. In a heavy large saucepan, combine cherry juice, sugar, kirsch and salt. Cook over medium until sugar dissolves, 3 to 4 minutes.
Stir in cherries. Bring to a boil over medium-high; reduce heat. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until cherries are wrinkled but slightly firm, about 45 minutes. (Syrup should be 235° at this point.)
Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, use a slotted spoon to transfer cherries to a parchment-lined sheet pan. (Cherries and syrup can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 4 months.)
For cakes: Position an oven rack in the middle of oven. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 13×9-inch baking pan and line it with parchment paper so the paper comes up all sides and has about a 2-inch overhang on each side.
In a medium bowl, whisk together egg whites, milk, sour cream, triple sec, vanilla and almond extract.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine flour, sugar, orange zest, baking powder and salt. With the mixer running on low, add butter one piece at a time, beating until mixture resembles coarse sand.
With mixer still running on low, slowly add milk mixture, mixing until just combined. Increase speed to medium; beat 30 seconds. (Batter may still look a little bumpy.) Use a rubber scraper to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix the batter a few more times. Gently stir in the prepared cherries, Candied Citrus Peels and dried fruit (if using).
Pour batter into prepared baking pan and smooth the top. Tap pan gently on the counter to help eliminate any air bubbles. Bake until golden brown and a wooden skewer or toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a faint bit of crumbs, or a finger gently pressed into the top leaves a slight indentation, 20 to 25 minutes.
Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool. Wrap cake, still in the pan, in plastic. Chill at least 2 hours or overnight.
Using the parchment paper, lift cake out of pan. Trim away uneven edges of cake. Cut cake into 24 bars, wiping the knife with a damp cloth as you go for cleaner cuts.* Place cakes on a tray and place in freezer while preparing coating.
For coating: In a small saucepan, melt 12 ounces chocolate and the shortening over low, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat. Add the remaining 2 ounces chocolate, stirring until melted and smooth.
Set a greased wire rack over a parchment-lined baking sheet. Take one piece of cake out of the freezer at a time and place it on a fork. Spoon melted chocolate over top, allowing it to coat the top and sides of the cake, letting any excess drip back into the pan. Place cake on prepared wire rack. Repeat with remaining cakes and Chocolate. Let cakes stand at room temperature until set. If desired, decorate with a few flecks of edible gold leaf. Store cakes in an airtight container at room temperature up to 2 days or in the refrigerator up to 1 week. (Undipped cakes can be placed in a freezer bag and frozen up to 3 months.)
You can find Sarah Kieffer's method for making candied peel by searching for "Candied Citrus Peel" on midwestliving.com.
If you'd like to give these cakes as gifts and package them two-by-two in the boxes pictured here, find project directions at midwestliving.com/fruitcakebox.