Not many things get the shaft this time of year, but amid good deeds and glittering lights, the fruitcake cowers in a corner. Banished from our good graces yet kept around for ridicule and sport (the Great Fruitcake Toss, anyone?), this poor heavy loaf has had more than its share of hardships.
And yet, fruitcake wasn’t created by some Frankenstein baker to scare naughty children on Christmas morning. In fact, it was once the ultimate edible symbol of decadence and bounty. The first fruitcakes appeared in ancient Egypt and, just like gold and jewels, were buried with the dead to sweeten the afterlife. If your tomb was stocked with fruitcake, you were kind of a big deal.
In 16th century Europe, when fresh fruit was scarce in winter and refrigeration was a far-off dream, British explorers brought home booty in the form of exotic preserved fruits that would last and last. To celebrate, they stuffed as many as they could into buttery cakes to serve with afternoon tea. Hence the glowing mosaic of citron (a sort of gnarly-looking lemon with an aromatic peel) and those red and green cherries that haunt our visions of holiday fruitcakes.
But just a few centuries later, fruitcake began to fall from favor. Deemed “sinfully rich,” it was pulled from dining room tables in several parts of Europe during the 18th century, beginning its long and shameful exile to the icebox. Then Johnny Carson was all: “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other,” and the whole thing went to hell.
Since then, fruitcake has enjoyed loads of scorn and little culinary appreciation. Even as large fruitcake operations opened up in monasteries (like the excellent Abbey Cake made in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and orders continued to pour in (Assumption Abbey in Missouri ships about 25,000 a year), for many it remains just a holiday joke. But like an aged cheese or wine, fruitcake needs only a little time in the shadows to grow stronger. In addition, most recipes insist that the fruitcake be seasoned with spirits over the course of several months to deepen its flavor.
Now is as good a time as any to update our opinions on fruitcake, especially considering the food world’s recent turn toward a more whole and conscious way of eating. And how can we deny the merits of a Christmas loaf that refuses to get lost in time, even if it’s relegated to life as a doorstop? As with any comestible, good ingredients are key, and there’s no shortage of local markets and quality dried fruits that can be baked into any number of delightful variations on this celebration cake. Rather than a chewy, weighty mass of jellies and flatlining sweetness, think of fruitcake as a moist, complex quick bread to rival your go-to banana or zucchini version, a boozy black hole of your favorite festive spices and deep, dark flavors.
Below you’ll find a recipe for fruitcake made without the typical glaceed fruits or unnatural colors. Throw in a handful of spicy candied ginger and some brandy, and you’ll have a sticky, mellow, almost gingerbread-like cake that will be ready in time for coffee on Christmas morning 2012.
If you must try a more historically accurate version, with a cross-section as bright as a stained glass window, pick up a fruitcake at A Baker’s Wife ($8, above). While they’re not aged, they are shortbread-like in flavor and kitschy as all get out. Sarah Jane’s Bakery in Northeast sells a heavier, pricier version in one-pound ($21) and one-and-a-half-pound loaves ($27.50).
And if you’re still not convinced of the merits of fruitcake, you could always just light the thing on fire. What’s a season of celebration for, anyway? Marie Rudisill, better known as the foul-mouthed Fruitcake Lady from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, shares a recipe for “Fruitcake Flaming” in her charming and distracted little book called Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote and Sook. Simply place a bowl of brandy in the center of a bundt-shaped fruitcake, take a match to the brandy, and then ladle the burning liquid over each piece of cake you serve. A garish presentation worthy of a notorious dessert — though not recommended at home.
Dark Fruit Cake
Makes six small or two large loaves
Adapted from Maria Van Cleve’s recipe in North Farms News
1 c butter, softened
1 c brown sugar
5 large eggs
2 c flour
½ tbsp cinnamon
½ tsp each nutmeg, allspice, and cloves
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 c walnuts, chopped
½ c pecans, chopped
½ c cashews, chopped
1 c dates, chopped
2 c mixed dried fruit (I used peaches, golden raisins, sour cherries, and crystallized ginger)
8 oz crushed pineapple, with juice
½ c molasses
½ c apricot jam
½ c brandy (Any kind that tastes good. I used E&J VSOP.)
1. Prepare marinade a day ahead by whisking together molasses, jam, and brandy. Add dried fruits, pineapple, and nuts to marinade and soak overnight in a covered container.
2. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Butter six 6 x 3 loaf pans (or two 9 x 5 loaf pans) and line with buttered parchment.
3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, at least one minute. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
4. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, spices, soda, and salt. Add dry mixture to creamed mixture in ½ cup increments, mixing just to combine. Fold in fruit and nut mixture.
5. Fill a pan with hot water and place it on the lowest oven rack. Distribute batter into buttered loaf pans. The cakes will not rise much, so it’s okay to fill them pretty high. Bake cakes for three hours, rotating occasionally.
6. Cool cakes completely and then remove from pans. Brush tops and sides with a mixture of one part honey and one part brandy. Wrap cakes tightly in plastic wrap and then in foil. Allow them to season in the refrigerator for at least one month before slicing. Brush cakes with honey and brandy as often as you like and keep them tightly wrapped in the freezer until the season comes round again.