I’ve never really understood why everyone loves to hate fruitcake. It seems to be this universal inside joke, only I’m on the outside. Maybe it’s a generational thing, I wasn’t around when Johnny Carson joked, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep passing it around.” Nor did I have the opportunity to bear witness to the industrialization of the fruitcake, when it transitioned from homemade gift to mass-produced, mail order wonder brick.
So I decided to try my hand at the maligned delicacy and see what all the fuss is about. Naturally, I learned a lot along the way. For starters, fruitcake is not so much a cake, as it is a stout bread. This could be part of the fruitcake’s downfall, at least in the States: no one likes to be mislead. But the fruitcake’s homeland is Britain, and there, it’s cake, also known as Christmas Cake. I also learned that the fruitcake’s origins are actually in food preservation, which explains all the booze: in the Middle Ages it was a way to preserve fruit. Soaking the fruit in alcohol, and regularly drenching the loaf, kept everything moist and from spoiling.
Since I had never tasted fruitcake before, I decided to make two different recipes - one from the US (à la my aunt*), and one from the UK (à la Nigel Slater). I will admit - I was wary. Since these recipes are mainly dried fruit and nuts, they’re not inexpensive to make, especially when you’re unsure if you will like the results. There was a large chance that I would be finding myself on the wrong side of the fruitcake joke; but ahead I forged, in the name of exploration.
The verdict? I still don’t get why fruitcake incurs such wrath. Sure, the "American" version weighs almost five pounds and could do some serious damage if hauled at someone in a fit of Christmas rage. But I love it’s nutty texture, and though I originally scoffed at the bright red and green cherries, they actually add a certain je ne sais quois to the whole situation. And in Nigel Slater’s recipe, though it’s a bit more simple to the eye (though a glaze is optional), the orange peel and spices make for an incredibly nuanced and complex flavor. So my final rally cry is this: let's end the dessert shaming, and bring back the fruitcake. Afterall, it's Christmas.
*My aunt does not remember where her recipe came from, but says her best guess is Good Housekeeping circa 198o-something.
Here's the thing about fruitcake: no matter which recipe you try, both are crazy filling. In fact, my new theory is that fruitcake is the original energy bar. Don't worry about cutting huge slices - a little goes a long way. If you're going to try Nigel Slater's recipe, you can find it here. If you want to try the Good Housekeeping 5-pounder, see below.
- (2) 6.5-8 oz containters of candied red cherries
- (1) 12 oz package of pitted prunes
- (1) 10 oz container of pitted dates
- (1) 3.5-4oz containter of candied green cherries
- 1/2 cup cream sherry
- 24 oz salted mixed nuts
- 6 oz of pecans
- 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 6 eggs, slightly beaten
In a large bowl, combine the first five ingredients. Let stand for 15 minutes or until almost all of the liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally.
LIne a 10" tube pan with foil. (I found this to be a bit challenging, so I lined the bottom and the center tube-y bit, and went without covering the sides. The cake turned out just fine)
Stir in mixed nuts and pecans into fruit mixture. Remove 1.5 cups fruit/nut mixture and set aside.
Stir the flower, sugar and baking powder into the fruit mixture until everything is well coated.
Stir in the eggs until everything is well mixed.
Spoon batter into the prepared pan, packing firmly to eliminate air pockets.
Sprinkle reserved fruit/nut mixture on top
Cover loosely with foil. Bake at 300°F for 2 hours. Remove foil and bake for 30 minutes more, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, and the top of the cake is lightly browned.
Cool cake in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes; remove from pan and carefully peel off foil. Cool cake completely on rack. Wrap fruitcake tightly in foil or plastic wrap. Refrigerate.