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Fruitcake Fan

Fruitcake Fan

I’ve been a fruitcake fan since childhood. I still am, despite decades of fruitcake jokes, fruitcake throwing contests and food snobbism. My mom bought one of the popular commercial varieties, such as Claxton — supersweet, full of neon-colored dried fruit, almost like candy. What’s a kid not to like?

These varieties are still around, which is actually surprising to me. I would have thought bright red and green candied cherries were off-putting. On the other hand, the cereal and candy aisles are full of brightly colored food products that people are buying. Fruitcakes are a $100 million business.

History of Fruitcake

Brightly colored candied cherries aren’t part of the fruitcake origin story. The roots trace back to ancient Rome. Soldiers needed food that was portable, tasty and kept well. Someone developed Satura, a sort of pressed cake made with pomegranate seeds, raisins, pine nuts, mashed barley and honey-sweetened wine. The original energy bar! But note: not overly sweetened, other than the raisins and wine. Sugar was not a thing back then.

Rome fell, but Satura lived on and morphed into home-based desserts. Bakers incorporated more exotic spices and dried fruit into new recipes, such as Italian panforte and German stollen. Other variations resembled updates of Satura, with honey, spices, dried fruit and mead, resulting in a cake with a very long shelf life.

After Europeans colonized North America, sugar became plentiful, and people on both sides of the Atlantic were able to preserve summer fruits by soaking them in sugar syrup. What to do with all that candied fruit? Make fruit cake. By the way, the high sugar content extends the shelf life of fruit cake. Soak the fruitcake in alcohol and the effect is amplified. It also improves flavor — more adult, less child-friendly.

Baking your own

If you’re a fruitcake enthusiast, try baking your own. I’ve been baking them on and off for many years. Several years ago I tried chocolate fruitcake, which got rave reviews. Unfortunately I lost the recipe. Meanwhile I found another one I like, which I used again this year.

My rules for baking fruitcake:

  • Find a recipe that’s easy and basic. No fussy ingredients or weird cooking procedures. You’re baking what’s essentially a quick bread with dried fruit. Shouldn’t be complicated!
  • Use normal dried fruit, not neon green or red cherries or sticky candied orange peel or pineapple bits.
  • Minced orange zest always a good idea, even if not in the recipe.
  • Experiment with different dried fruits than those in the recipe, but keep the amount the same, by weight.
  • Chop larger pieces of dried fruit into small pieces. Examples are apples, pears, prunes, figs, apricots.
  • Nuts are optional. I don’t use them. Fruitcake, not nutcake.
  • Try baking smaller sizes. Most recipes will recommend an 8″ X 4″ pan. I also used some 3″ X 5″ pans and made several fruitcake muffins. Perfect size for gifting.
  • Bake 3-4 weeks ahead of time if possible. 2 weeks would be OK. The day before? No.
  • Cakes should be soaked in strong spirits during that time. This dramatically improves flavor. Most recipes will have instructions for this. Rum, brandy and whiskey are all good choices. You don’t need to use fancy stuff.
  • Enjoy!

I broke out one of my fruitcake muffins yesterday just to be sure it was OK, because you never know. Really. It was delicious. Moist, not too sweet, rich, satisfying. I’ll slice into the larger one next week and probably enjoy it into January. It will make a great energy snack for winter activities.