Every December fruitcake, the most misunderstood holiday treat, is forced back into the holiday spotlight again for more abuse. Hate on its unimaginative loaf shape. Mock its colorful but unrecognizable “food-like” ingredients. Ostracize it with a journey straight from the front door to the trashcan. But do this at your own risk of self-deprivation… and mob mentality.
This villainous fruitcake is actually an innocent victim and deserves your reconsideration.
For me, the only fruitcake I have ever liked is my mom’s fruitcake, but I love her fruitcake. Growing up, every year we would have fruitcake for Christmas. My parents used to host a Christmas party at our house on December 23 where my dad’s co-workers and my mom’s co-worker and their friends with kids would spend three to four hours filling our house with loud chatter. My mom spent days baking amazing sweets for this party: chocolate tarts, rum cake, cheesecake cookies, pecan tarts, fudge, and fruitcake. And not the infamous dry brick loaded with “nasty things.” Her fruitcake was always moist, fruity, and delicious. But more importantly, even though all the sweets were prepared every year for the party, fruitcake means Christmas parties, laughter, fun, vanilla, cinnamon, and chocolate aromas, and chatter filling our home.
With fond memories of my mom’s fruitcake, I deconstruct the lambasted dessert: flour, sugar, butter, eggs – all normal cake stuff; dried or candied fruit – not so normal in cakes; nuts and alcohol – yes, please. While not enough brandy leaves a cake dry and too much means a wasted loaf, the culprit for the demise of all fruitcakes is possibly the nuts, but probably the manufactured fruit. A further deconstruction of the manufactured “candied” fruit finds that it is dried fruit chopped, boiled and coated in a sugar syrup. If you buy the fruitcake filling in the store, then you also get as a bonus high fructose corn syrup and other preservatives.
This leads to the heart of fruitcake. Does the fruit in fruitcake need to be candied with high fructose corn syrup? Or can the treasured traditions of fruitcake lore be saved by swapping out candied cherries, orange peel and citron with dried cherries, apricots, and mango? Apple? Blueberries? Turns out, it can. The recipe my mom used for decades calls for raisins, currants, dates, figs, almonds, walnuts and pecans. It also calls for candied fruits – which I used this year – but now I want to do another patch with no candied fruit. This recipe also calls for the cooled loafs to be wrapped in “well-dampened” with Brandy cheesecloth – not doused or drowned or three sheets to the wind.
My mom’s fruitcake, from Redbook’s 1973 November issue, was always a special treat during the holidays growing up. Since we moved from my hometown over 25 years ago, she has made her fruitcake once. All of a sudden my kids are sixteen and have never had (a good) fruitcake. I now have week old fruitcake aging in the cupboard and am crossing my fingers and hoping it is everything I remember.
By Heather Still