Know Your Sweets: Fruitcake
"Oh my, it's fruitcake weather."—Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory, 1956
With its candied-fruit dappled interior and brick-like heft, fruitcake is far and away the most mocked dessert—seasonal or not. It's time we stop making the fruitcake a laughing stock, get it a better PR agent, and instead celebrate this rich (and often boozy) dessert for its prominent place in history.
Bara Brith, Panettone, Stollen, Christmas Cake, Mince Meat Pie, Dundee Cake, Genoa Cake
Spotlight Ingredient: Candied Fruit
Fruit crystallized with honey or sugar is perhaps the first "candy" ever created, as it has been enjoyed by partygoers across the globe since the fourteenth century. Candied orange and lemon peel, along with candied roses, were served as between-course palate cleansers at large dinners across the Arabian empire, and slowly made their way to Western Civilization throughout the sixteenth century. The first use of the word "candy" as a verb can be found in Thomas Elyot's 1541 diet regimen Castel of Health, in which candied ginger was thought be a remedy for excess phlegm. While dates, plums, pineapples, and cherries are all popular candying options, taking a cue from the past and garnishing your desserts with candied (edible) flower petals is a whimsical, delicate alternative.
Blame it on the fact that bad gift givers are a global epidemic, but most countries have their own take on fruit cake. Across Great Britain, the cake is covered in marzipan and then decorated with icing and small, festive holiday scenes. More peculiarly, in Yorkshire, it is served with a side of cheese. Australians, bucking the only-during-December trend, eat fruitcake year round. In Trinidad, fruit cake is called "black cake" and is soaked in a significant amount of rum before serving. If you're look for the most fortune-favoring version, Portugal's bolo rei—a ring-shaped fruitcake, which largely resembles a Mardi Gras king cake—has a "lucky" fava bean inside.
In one form or another, fruitcake has been consumed since the Roman Empire, when raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds were mixed together with barley hash. During the middle ages, the fruitcake as we know it today was born, with spices and candied fruit added to a thick, doughy batter. When butter was outlawed in adherence with Christmas fasting in the 1400s, it wasn't until 1490 that Pope Innocent the VIII gave permission for butter, cream, and milk to be used for the creation of Stollen—a type of German bread with similarities to fruitcake—in the region of Saxony. His edict has become colloquially known as the "butter letter" or "butter brief" amongst historians.
Fruitcakes have been a part of the American diet since colonists arrived, due in large part to the cake's long shelf life which made it an appealing dessert for long voyages. Throughout the 17th Century, as sugarcane began to become a staple crop across parts of the newly minted United States, candied fruit appeared with greater frequency in fruitcakes, as did liquors, which helped to further act as a preservative. Due to its high alcohol content, a fruit cake baked in 1878 is kept to this day as an heirloom by a family in Michigan.
The bad wrap for this holiday treat most likely began in the early 20th Century, when mail-order fruitcakes became widely available from companies across the South. These cakes erred in favor of heavy nut quantities instead of heavy fruit, leading to the classics Southern expression, "He's nuttier than a fruitcake!" Hate it or love it, over 2 million fruitcakes are sold each holiday season in the United States.
Spotlight City: Manitou Springs, Colorado
Each January high in the Rocky Mountains, competitors come from across the nation to show off their speed, strength, and agility at the Great Fruitcake Toss. Contestants can choose between various means of hurling their fruitcake into the snowy oblivion, including by hand, slingshot, cannon, or make-shift spud gun. Other activities include a fruit cake derby, as well as a fruit cake catching contest for those with catlike reflexes interested in bare-handing a frozen hunk of cake.
No person is more closely associated with fruitcake than longtime late night television darling "The Fruitcake Lady" (who was also, inexplicably, Truman Capote's aunt). Marie Rudisill spent the better part of her 80s and 90s doling out candid advice, kissing Tom Cruise, and showing Mel Gibson just how to make fruitcake the proper, Alabama way.
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About the author: Sarah Baird is a writer, editor, and petit four aficionado living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She likes planning elaborate dinner parties surrounded by her collection of dwarf citrus trees. You can read her latest musings and about her various misadventures on her website: hellosarahbaird.com or follow her on Twitter: @scbaird.