Thursday, January 06, 2011

Don't fear the fruitcake

I know the holidays are past, but I am here to talk to you about fruitcake. Most people will tell you, with a little shudder, that they hate fruitcake and then go on to say how much candied fruit disgusts them. I thought I hated fruitcake, although I had never tasted it. The closest I came were my Grandmother Bermingham's Bath Buns, nasty little confections, burned on the bottom and sprinkled with red and green candied cherries. During the Bath Bun era, I was young enough to wonder what buns had to do with taking a bath, and also young enough to be fooled every time by those bright red and green cherries which looked delicious and tasted like something scraped off the bottom of an old jar of Smucker's orange marmalade and mixed with cigarette ash.

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 players:
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.


  1. First, I admire you tons and bunches for enduring this entire process AND then bothering to post about it. Second, who knew? Not me--that's for sure! Especially the last bit--about how rich it tastes and the history of who it served. Makes sense.
    If I ever get a chance to eat real fruitcake, I will try it.

  2. My dad likes fruitcake. Every year at Christmastime a colleague of his makes this fruitcake in a coffee can and gives it to everyone. I think my dad is the only one who eats it.

    I've never enjoyed fruitcake myself, but this one actually looks good.

  3. I love fruitcake. My grandmother brought her family recipe with her from England when she married my grandfather in the 1940's and we make it every year. It's hard for me to wait for it to mature and then I usually eat one whole cake myself over the course of December (my recipe makes 6 cakes! Eek! big bowl, lots of fruit, very little flour) So glad you have joined the revolution :) And I might have to try that white fruitcake, it looks very interesting. Fun to meet last night!

  4. I love this post. I remember a huge Martha Stewart mag write-up on the charms of fruitcake, as the article put it - only the best ingredients, no horrific candied cherries, gently bathed in booze and aged for weeks if not months.

    I have yet to bite the bullet and bite into making it, and I was also seduced by both of those recipes.

    So I'm glad you took one for the team so to speak, and have clearly saved me the effort. Fruitcake may be complex and good, but we won't eat much of it either. Perhaps in earlier times it would just continue to be soaked in booze indefinitely and whipped out for treats?

  5. I found this while googling for Grigson's recipe because I'm lazy and didn't feel like typing it out after a friend requested it...

    I love this recipe BUT only after it has been Bermudianised (3 T of Sherry on all that fruit is beyond miserly.)

    Around the end of October you take that all that dried fruit and put it in a container with at least a cup of Goslings black rum - I put enough in so that there is some at the bottom to be absorbed. I may be fooling myself that it's only a cup.

    Then you stir it around every now and then until you're ready to make the cake at the end of November.

    By that time you have a heady mix of plump fruit redolent of the deep molasses flavour of black rum.

    After it comes out of the oven you poke holes in it and drizzle some more black rum - oh the scent and sizzle of rum and hot cake.

    When cool wrap it in cheesecloth that has been dipped in rum, then wax paper or plastic wrap then tin foil. There will be no mold, trust me.

    We do not serve it on Christmas Day, that day belongs to the equally glorious Christmas pudding. The cake is for before and after - when people drop by, or it's just you and the fire and some tea :-)