They’re the brunt of many jokes this time of year. They’re the gift seemingly no one wants to get. Yet, fruitcakes have their passionate devotees. Like many traditional holiday treats, the decline in its reputation is due to cutting corners for the sake of convenience and profit. Clearly, what most abhor are the colorful candied cherries, citron and rind, today dripping in corn sweeteners and preservatives with the culinary appeal of a chopped garden hose. If you manage to purchase a quality fruitcake—and they’re out there if you take the time to look—it will be expensive, but the best are still made at home. The genuine article begins with a butter-rich pound cake and just enough batter to bind together a hoard of nuts and dried and glacéed fruit (not to be confused with the syrupy stuff sold at the supermarket). The serious fruitcake maker gets busy just about Halloween since the finished product needs to be swaddled in cheesecloth and liberally and religiously doused with booze—bourbon, brandy or rum.
Fan or foe, fruitcakes have quite a history. Here are 10 fascinating (at least I think so) fruitcake facts.
1. Fruitcakes have been around forever (no joke intended). Probably dating bake to the ancient Egyptians and certainly the Romans who left recipes for cakes composed of pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and raisins baked with barley. Their popularity in Europe coincided with the availability of dried Mediterranean fruit.
2. Two cities claim to be the Fruitcake Capital of the U.S: Claxton, Georgia home of Claxton Fruit Cake that began as a small bakery opened by Italian immigrant Savino Tos in 1910; and Corsicana, Texas home of DeLuxe Fruitcake that also began as a small bakery opened by German immigrant August Weidmann in 1896.
3. When saturated with spirits and stored in an airtight container, fruitcakes continue to age just like fine wines. It’s the alcohol that prevents the formation of mold, but it’s the tannin in the dried fruit that encourages the transformation of the cake. An aged fruitcake has a much more complex and intense flavor, denser texture, and reputedly will keep for up to 25 years.
4. Many of us marveled at William and Catherine’s spectacular eight-tiered Royal Wedding cake, but how many in this country knew that under the mountains of scrolled ivory frosting and sugar-paste flowers was a fruitcake? As was once the tradition in this country as well—before the advent of the electric freezer—wedding cakes in England are most often fruitcakes. The reason being that a portion—usually the top layer dubbed the bride’s cake—was saved to be consumed on the bride and groom’s first anniversary.
5. Besides a bride’s cakes, once it was popular for a second fruitcake known as the groom’s cake to appear at wedding dinners. Sliced, wrapped in a white napkin, and tied with a ribbon, it was placed at each guest’s place. Custom was for a single woman to take it home, put it under her pillow so that she might dream of the man she would marry.
6. A plum pudding is nothing more than a steamed fruitcake. Home baking only dates back to the advent of the modern stove with a regulated oven. Early colonists brought with them from England a fondness for puddings. It was only natural that at Christmas it be something special. There were never any plums (the fruit) in plum pudding, but rather in this incidence “plum” means a choice morsel. By the way, sugar plums as immortalized in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem The Night Before Christmas refer to nuts and dried and glacéed fruit found in the center of candies.
7. The British are without a doubt the number one fans of fruitcake, where it shows up not only at Christmas—elaborately decorated with marzipan and winter scenes—and weddings as already mentioned, but at celebratory events all year long. A notable version is Scotland’s Dundee cake flavored with currants, sultanas and almonds, first mass produced by James Keiller & Son, famous for its Dundee marmalade.
8. Some type of fruitcake shows up as part of the Christmas celebration in many countries. In Italy it’s panforte, a dense and chewy fruitcake flavored with spices that originated in Siena in the 13th-century and remains popular today. Germans love their stollen, rich yeast dough full of fruit and nuts enrobed in powdered sugar. Trinidad and Tobago’s holiday treat is known as black cake because of its quantity of raisins and not surprisingly is awash in rum. In the Bahamas, not only is the cake rum soaked, but all the fruits and nuts marinated in the darkest rum two to three weeks before baking.
9. Many credit Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” with the joke that there is but only one fruitcake in the world that is re-gifted each Christmas. However, there is a wealth of fruitcake humor. In 1983, Russell Baker in The New York Times claimed to report the result of a poll as to what people did when they received a fruitcake. The results:
10. There is actually a website devoted to the recycling of fruitcakes: http://fruitcakerecycling.com/
Usually I end with a recipe. I think not. Merry Christmas!