A few months ago, I considered the fruitcake and wondered how it came to be so maligned. What did the fruitcake ever do to us? There are the jokes about fruitcake's usefulness as a doorstop or a step stool or any other heavy household implement. If only there'd been a fruitcake to fortify the levees in NOLA in time for Hurricane Katrina!
I had two fruitcake recipes I felt compelled to try. The first, called Country Christmas Cake, which I read about in Laurie Colwin's More Home Cooking comes originally from Jane Grigson's English Food. Colwin says:
Country Christmas Cake has a rich deep taste, as complicated as a brocade or tapestry, and makes a person think of those magnificent aged Sauternes....Hands down, it is the best I have ever made--and also the best I have ever eaten.
How could I resist trying this recipe? The other, "Smith Family White Fruitcake" comes from Jeffery Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything. I don't know what he said about this cake that compelled me to carefully copy the recipe on an index card before returning the book to the library, but I do know it hails from Salt Lake City which should be heartening to those of you who don't drink alcohol. Now you too can enjoy delicious fruitcake!
Fruitcake, it turns out, is quite an undertaking. In order to assemble all the ingredients, I had to visit four stores and two websites.
The blue rubber band is not a player. It just wanted to be in the picture.
The day after Thanksgiving, I got to work on the Country Christmas Cake. First, you chop an enormous quantity of dried fruits, citrus rind, orange juice, apricot jam, applesauce and spices. There are small amounts of candied ginger and cherries in this recipe, but dried fruit is the dominant ingredient. You douse everything with sweet Sherry and let the mixture sit overnight.
The next day you mix the batter, add to it the fruit--which now smells pleasantly boozy--and bake in a 10" Springform pan which you have lined with three layers of parchment paper.
The resulting cake weighed five and a half pounds.
The final step is to poke it with a skewer and sprinkle it with whiskey, after which the cake is wrapped and put on a shelf to compose itself for a month.
The "Smith Family White Fruitcake" is like fruitcake light, incredible as it may seem to use "light" to describe a recipe that calls for a pound of butter. In one bowl, you combine candied cherries, candied pineapple, walnuts and raisins.
In another you mix the batter and then you combine the two. This is stiff work and I recommend you eat a good breakfast before attempting this cake.
Bake in loaf pans.
This cake does not need to be aged, but will keep in the refrigerator for three weeks. You slice it thin--part of the appeal of this cake is the stained glass effect from its thin slices--and it makes a nice addition to a platter of Christmas cookies. It is very sweet and moist. You eat it and think, "Hey! I like fruitcake!"
On Christmas morning, I unwrapped the Country Christmas Cake. I had been afraid it would turn moldy, but it didn't. It did, however, closely resemble petrified wood and required further embellishments before serving. First of all, the cake is spread with quince jam. Any jam will do, but Laurie Colwin recommends quince so that is what I used.
Next, a layer of marzipan. I was a little intimidated by the marzipan, having never worked with it before. I dusted my work surface with a little powdered sugar, and it turned out to be not so terrifying after all.
Laurie Colwin says, "Roll it out, cut it to fit, and you will find that it sticks to the cake in a very satisfying fashion," which is exactly what happens.
Finally, a layer of boiled icing.
At last, it was time to serve the cake.
I could hardly wait to finally sample the fruit of my month-long labors. I expected something subtle and sophisticated: a complex blend of the many complementary flavors that went into this cake. The truth is, it tasted a bit pruney. I had expected the jam+marzipan+icing to be too much sweetness, but the cake itself is not very sweet, so the toppings are welcome.
Now I understand the problem of the fruitcake. First of all, it is very rich, so serving it after a large Christmas dinner means that most people will only be able to get down a bite or two. We had eight people for dinner on Christmas and barely 1/4 of the cake was consumed. Fruitcake, we must remember, is an old-fashioned dish from an era of large families and housefuls of servants. My family is large, by 2010 standards, but not large enough for a fruitcake. And I can't pass the leftovers on to the scullery maid for the simple reason that I am the scullery maid. In other words, where there is fruitcake, there will be leftovers, hence the idea of fruitcake as something that you simply can't get rid of.
For the rest of the holiday week, the fruitcake reproachfully sat on the dining room table, with it's pathetic little wedge cut out. It looked like a pacman. We ate Christmas cookies and lemon tart but we neglected the fruitcake. I did finally try it again, on an empty stomach, and it is very good and I was able to appreciate the subtle play of flavors. It is now January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany and the official last day of Christmas, and the fruitcake is still on my dining room table.