When did the poor fruitcake loose it’s popularity? Of what crime against humanity is it guilty? How did it become the most maligned dessert in the world? Surely the fruitcake must have been good once, right? How did it win it’s starring role in the Christmas dessert canon if it never tasted good? Is it just because we tend not to like what our grandmothers liked? No, because my grand-mother liked peanut-butter pie, smother-fried steak and sage cornbread dressing and I don’t think those dishes would end up as the bad gag-gift at the Yankee swap.
More probably like all trends, it just is the victim of over-production. That’s my guess. After all, once it’s been trivialized so that the corner store sells it in the dollar bin, you know it’s fallen on hard times.
I know personally that all fruitcakes are not created equal. I know this because, even though as a child I never liked them, I have tasted many, many morsels because my father and his mother, who lived with us, were fruitcake fans.
In fact, my grandmother, Mama Gene, supplied the small Alabama town she lived in with it’s yearly supply of premium fruitcake for over twenty years from about 1945 to 1965. Around Thanksgiving every year she turned into a fruitcake machine, churning out over 500 pounds of the sticky cake every year. All by herself with no assembly lines, no assistants, no professional ovens, no food processors. All by herself, one twenty-pound batch at a time. By the time she came to live with us, the yearly output had dwindled down to one or two a year for just us and maybe a family friend. However, you don’t succeed at making fruitcake in the small-town American South for very long unless you make a really good fruitcake.
Not all the fruitcake to be had at our house was a Mama Gene work of fruitcake art. When word gets out that you live in the home of a fruitcake fan, fruitcakes start showing up on your doorstep from every mail-order Christmas catalog around. You can’t stop them. They are like the lost puppies of the dessert world. They just keep coming back. So, I learned what to look for before deciding how big of a nibble I could bear without looking rude. The amount of the sort-of translucent greenish-white, jello-looking candied fruit, citron, was my clue. After a few, I learned that the more citron in the cake, the less likely I could get it down. Really it didn’t matter; I didn’t like any of them. Although the really good fruitcakes tasted good to me if you picked out all the candied fruit (except the pineapple) and all the raisins (ick). So basically I liked the cake and the pecans and probably the booze.
I was thinking about all this the other day when I was talking with my father, who often helps me think through the logistics of recipes I’m developing. I was working on a prune and fig cake, but couldn’t quite get to a game plan I really liked. My father mentioned that he had run across his mother’s go-to cookbook: The Rumford Complete Cookbook published 1908. Inside the front cover were three of her fruitcake recipes from the 1940s. One for light fruitcake, one for dark fruitcake and one for half light, half dark fruitcake. I mentioned that I liked her fruitcake if I picked out all the candied fruit (hers fell in the middle of the citron scale). Of course! Why couldn’t I make her fruitcake but with more natural dried fruit in place of the candied fruit I hated so much. After all, dried fruit seems much more popular these days than it did a decade ago thanks to marketing campaigns that have changed what we eat from prunes to dried plums. (A million dollar marketing idea based on the idea that renaming foods from icky sounding words to more palatable ones would make people want to eat it; not a new idea to for moms of picky kids who have been using that trick for generations. “That’s not grits honey, it’s mini rice!”).
I’m not sure where Mama Gene got her recipe. Perhaps she used the Rumford “Wedding Fruitcake” (page 140) to help her. However, I think the better bet is that my grandmother used a version of her father’s fruitcake recipe. He was a pastry chef trained in Germany before immigrating to America and opening a bakery in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. As a young girl, she worked in his bakery and must have made fruitcakes on a large scale every holiday season. So, when she found herself as a stay-at-home mom who wanted to make a few extra bucks for the Christmas fund, making fruitcakes came naturally to her.
However she came to this recipe, it works. I was able to scale it down with few problems. According to my father she made her own pear preserves with lemon peel on a yearly basis just to use as an ingredient in her fruitcakes (can you say dedication?). First on my list of recipe renovations was cutting the odious citron from my recipe. I did want a mild citrus flavor, so since I was fresh out of homemade pear/lemon preserves, I opted for orange marmalade and then also added fresh lemon and orange zest. Gone from her recipe are the pounds and pounds of heavily sugared (and dyed) candied fruit. In their place are simple chopped, dried fruit. Green and red cherries are replaced with dried apricots and dried cherries. Candied pineapple and raisins are replaced with figs and “dried plums”. Chunks of citron are now studs of crystallized ginger. All in all her recipe called for over 12 pounds of fruit for three “good sized cakes.” Because the fruit she used was so heavily sugared, I had to adjust accordingly. Yet, my recipe still packs a pretty dense ratio of fruit to cake. It turns out that a “good sized cake” is actually a tube pan and makes about a five pound cake. I guess “good sized” means enough to feed a small family of 25. However, since fruitcake has been known to last several years when wrapped in liquor soaked linen, I went with it.
The result is impressive. I’ll be honest – I was giddy when it came out of the oven looking and smelling like fruitcake. The taste was a surprise; it tasted good; fruit and all. So good, in fact that I ate the two slices you see in the picture (they were cut after all). The flavor was akin to an extreme fig newton. Full of sweet figgy goodness, but with so much more. You taste the dates and figs first, but then the spices, the ginger, the apricots and cherries start to come through too. It’s a Christmas party in your mouth. Hubby, who doesn’t really like dried fruit or nuts, admitted that it was good too. Hubby saying any fruitcake is good is like getting a three year old to say brussel sprouts are super yummy. Of course Little Guy, who eagerly helped me make the cake, declared it yucky. Glad that know fruitcake is still a grownup flavor.
If you do make this fruitcake, you won’t be sorry. It’s not hard to make but is time consuming. Chopping all the dried fruit probably takes the longest of the hands-on work. Whatever you do, don’t rush the baking process. This cake is dense and needs to cook very low and slow. You will be impressed with the results. You’ll impress family and guests too. You’ll be that rare person who is able to make a fruitcake that people like. Help this poor dessert regain some of its former glory! Won’t you please help the fruitcake cause? Make one this holiday season. Enjoy (and Happy Holidays)!
Modern Fruitcake (made with dried not candied fruit)
Makes 1 large tube pan cake, about five pounds finished
You can store this cake in the back of the refrigerator to keep it longer. To prevent drying out, pour a small amount of additional bourbon or whiskey over it to moisten it every time you cut a piece, or keep it wrapped in a piece of muslin soaked in liquor. This not only adds moisture but also an additional decadent richness.
3/4 pound butter (3 sticks)
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 tablespoon cane syrup or molasses
1/4 cup Bourbon or other whiskey
1/3 cup sweet orange marmalade or other light colored preserves
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
3 cups flour (divided with 1/3 cup of it for fruit)
1/2 pound pitted dates (sweet medjool), about 1 1/2 cups
6 ounces figs, stems removed, about 1 1/4 cup
6 ounces prunes, about 1 cup
1/4 pound apricots, about 3/4 cup
1/4 pound dried cherries, about 3/4 cup
2 ounces crystallized ginger, about 1/4 cup
4 ounces pecans, about 3/4 cup
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
Chop the dates, figs, prunes, apricots and pecans into 1/4” pieces. Chop the ginger into very small pieces about 1/8” in size.
Mix all the fruit, pecans, ginger and zests in a large bowl. Add 1/3 cup of the flour and toss thoroughly.
Use your fingers to separate all the pieces of fruit so that none are stuck together. Set aside.
Set an oven rack to the middle position and preheat oven to 275 degrees. Grease and flour a tube pan and set aside. In a medium bowl combine the remaining 2 2/3 cup flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and allspice and set aside.
In the bowl of a heavy mixer combine the butter and sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl between each addition.
Add the vanilla, syrup, marmalade (or preserves) and bourbon and mix until combined.
The batter will look slightly broken.
Add the flour mixture and mix until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix once again to make sure the batter is well combined, but do not over beat. Add the fruit and nut mixture and mix or fold in until just combined.
Scoop the mixture into the baking pan.
If you are using a tube pan you can decorate the top of the cake with pecan halves and additional dried fruit.
Place the cake in the middle of the oven. Bake the cake for about 3 hours, or until a toothpick comes out clean and dry.
Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool for fifteen minutes. Run a thin knife or spatula around the edges of the pan and around the inner tube before turning the cake out. Let cool completely on a wire rack before covering. The cake will keep for several weeks.