“The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
– Johnny Carson
Love it or hate it, few people are indifferent when it comes to this seminal holiday dessert. Once universally admired, cheaply made fruitcakes have knocked the real McCoy off its pedestal. Regardless, it’s been around since the Middle Ages, and many cultures have their own unique ways of concocting these fruit-and-nut-filled pastries, often identified with the Christmas season. In Italy it is panettone; in Germany, stollen; in Portugal, bolo rei.
The direct ancestor of what we recognize in this country as a fruitcake is the English Christmas cake. It starts out as a butter-rich pound cake. Traditional additions to the batter are raisins and other dried fruits, lemon and orange zest, flaked almonds, spices and spirits—sherry, brandy, rum or whisky. Plum pudding is created in much the same way, but it’s steamed rather than baked. A proper fruitcake needs to be made a couple of months (or even longer) in advance, stored in a tin and doused with some booze every fortnight. The British rendition is topped off with marzipan and royal icing right before serving.
The fruitcake’s American cousin was made in much the same way for generations, except for the Yankee propensity to add lots of pecans or walnuts to the mix. Fruitcake’s downfall began with the inclusion of glacé fruit. Saccharine, syrupy and artificially colored, it too often has the character of a candied garden hose. Another failure today is not baking the cake far enough in advance and feeding it with a periodic splash of alcohol. Just like the best beef, wine and cheese, a quality fruitcake greatly benefits from aging.
Properly nurtured, fruitcakes are notoriously good keepers. Prior to the advent of the deep freeze, the top tier of a wedding cake was always a fruitcake, a custom that still survives in the U.K. That made it possible for the bride and groom to enjoy a slice on their first anniversary. Recently, conservationists excavating the Antarctic camp of English explorer Robert Falcon Scott unearthed his 106-year-old fruitcake and pronounced it in “excellent condition … almost edible.”
Two different American towns argue that they are the Fruitcake Capital of the World: Claxton, Georgia, and Corsicana, Texas. Two bakeries in Claxton produce more than 4 million pounds of the delicacy each year. Founded in 1896, the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana was presumably the first to use mail order to market its Deluxe brand of cakes. Religious orders have long been connected with baking fruitcakes, and Gethsemani Farms in Trappist, Kentucky, ships its award-winning wares all over the world. Closer to home, the O&H Danish bakery in Racine, better known for its kringle, makes a popular seasonal specialty—its brandy old fashioned fruit cake.
Despite fruitcake’s celebrated history, there is no discounting its detractors. Taste does indeed change. For many, what was once a luxury—like syllabub and wassail—is now a disappointment, a culinary relic perhaps best consigned to the past.
Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.