What’s the deal with fruitcake? How can a dessert possibly suffer from bad PR? How can something full of sugar, fat, and fruit, soaked in alcohol, be relegated to the ranks of such universally disdained foods as lima beans, Brussels sprouts, and liver? The two halves independently sound good — fruit and cake. Yet the final product, somehow, becomes far less than the sum of its parts. What has made this basically harmless (harmless, that is, until it’s flung at someone’s head) confection the object of so much scorn?
Well, part of the problem is overexposure. The classic fruitcake is an amalgamation of dried fruits and nuts, sugar, a little flour, and eggs, which is then soaked in rum or other spirits. The dried ingredients and the high sugar and alcohol content combine to produce a natural wonder of preservation. This long shelf life made the fruitcake the perfect mail-order item in the days before chemical preservatives. American companies started distributing fruitcakes by mail in 1913. As with all things, mass production and competition for price point led to inferior quality and the use of cheaper ingredients (including those cheerfully toxic-looking red and green cherries). Fruitcakes also became synonymous with charity drives, and you know how people feel about anything they’re guilted into purchasing.
The indestructibility of the fruitcake also makes it an ideal regifting item. This practice became so notorious that Johnny Carson put the nail in the coffin of the fruitcake’s reputation when on The Tonight Show he famously quipped, “The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
The joke was so popular that decades later, “Ask the Fruitcake Lady” became a running segment on The Tonight Show, and Jay Leno sampled a 125-year-old “heirloom” fruitcake on air in 2003.
While the fruitcake may be despised by many today, it has a long and illustrious history as a popular dessert throughout the Western world. But there’s also a sordid side to the fruitcake’s past. In the early 18th century the cake was outlawed throughout continental Europe on the charge that it was “sinfully rich.”
Fruitcake is the traditional wedding cake in Great Britain. Beneath the ornate white fondant façade of the centerpiece of the 2011 royal wedding lurked a fruitcake (draped in marzipan!). In this country, the cake is most popular in the South, where many of the original mail-order suppliers are still located. In the early part of the last century, Southerners tended to load their fruitcakes with one of their most abundant resources — nuts, leading to the expression “nutty as a fruitcake.”
This phrase probably hasn’t helped the confection’s image much. The scorn inflicted on the fruitcake has taken a decidedly vicious turn recently, as evidenced by the annual Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colo., and an initiative called the Great Fruitcake Recycling Project, whose website lists such suggestions for repurposing fruitcakes as using them for doorstops, hammers, speed bumps, car trunk weights, and dartboards. The Recycling Project will also accept, by mail, any unwanted fruitcakes to pass along to more appreciative recipients.
Some people apparently love fruitcake. It was reputedly one of Princess Grace’s favorites. There’s even a National Fruitcake Day — Dec. 27.
And judging by a recent Facebook inquiry, there are many on the Island who not only like the dense dessert, but make their own. Traditionally, fruitcakes are prepared around Thanksgiving to allow time for saturation and flavor infusion. Truman Capote’s mostly autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory” relates the the adventures of a young boy and his elderly aunt who spend days gathering ingredients and preparing for their annual holiday baking. It all starts on a frosty morn in late November when Aunt Sook proclaims, “It’s fruitcake weather!” (Incidentally, Capote’s real aunt was the Tonight Show’s Fruitcake Lady).
Betty Burton’s fruitcake
Betty Burton in Oak Bluffs has adapted her grandmother’s fruitcake recipe to make it a little more healthy — as healthy as something with sugar and molasses loaded with a rum kick can be. She replaces much of the candied fruit with dried or fresh fruit, but keep in mind that dried fruits have to soak for a few hours before they are used.
1 cup raisins
½ cup dates
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup dried cherries
½ cup chopped fresh or canned pineapple
zest of one lemon
zest of one orange
¼ cup candied ginger, chopped
½ cup pecans, broken into pieces
½ cup orange juice
1 cup rum
1¼ stick unsalted butter
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup molasses
¼ teaspoon cloves
¼ teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
Brandy for basting and/or spritzing
Mix the dried fruits in a large bowl with the orange juice and rum. Set aside to marinate for at least three hours.
Heat oven to 325ºF. Cream butter. Add sugar and molasses. Add eggs lightly beaten. Add pineapple and dried fruits with all the liquid.
Combine dry ingredients (including spices). Mix bit by bit into the butter batter. Fold in nuts. Spoon into a 10-inch greased loaf pan and bake for 1 hour, spritzing with brandy several times during baking time. Check for doneness with a toothpick. If no batter sticks to toothpick, cake is done. Cool on a baking rack completely before turning out of pan.
Pair a fruitcake with wine
We asked the Times’ new wine columnist, Sam Decker, what would be the ideal pairing for fruitcake. Here’s what he said: “Tawny port all the way. Port, it could be said, is the fruitcake of the wine world.”