WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Turkey, ham, or prime rib roast? What about pumpkin or sweet potato pie?
We can all probably come to the reasonable conclusion that these are perfectly acceptable Christmas-time foods.
However, fruitcake seems to be the one polarizing holiday confection that people either lovingly defend or vehemently condemn. What is it about this sweet, often boozy brick that causes such division?
Fruitcakes have been around for a very, very long time. One of the first known written recipes is in a collection of Roman recipes from around the 5th century CE called Apicius.
It contains a recipe using pomegranate, raisins, pine nuts and barley. Variations soon sprang up all over Europe.
In fact, nearly every region of Italy has its own variation. There was even a Papal edict lifting a ban on butter just so a Saxony version of fruitcake could be made.
With the proliferation of trade by sea, spices, once a luxury, started becoming more available to the average person. The introduction of sugar cane to the Americas (and, sadly, slavery) led to the mass production of sugar, which also meant that fruits, especially ones that would spoil too quickly before they could make it from tropical regions to Europe and the American colonies, could be preserved on a mass scale.
Suddenly the fruitcake was available to the world. Now, you can find fruitcake recipes on nearly every continent.
Fruitcake has even been found in Antarctica. In 2017, a 106-year-old fruitcake was discovered there — a relic from the British Antarctic Expedition of the early 1900s.
Beginning of slander
So, where does the fruitcake slander begin? Did it start with the insulting idiom “nutty as a fruitcake?”
Nutty itself as an insult first appeared in the English language around 1821, and it was used to describe someone who was strange. Fruitcake didn’t get associated with nutty directly until some time later. The first written instance found was published about 100 years later.
It coincides with the proliferation of mass-produced fruitcakes in America, starting around 1913. That may just be where it all began.
If you’ve ever made a fruitcake — a real, traditional fruitcake — you know it can be quite a labor-intensive thing. It was much easier to “farm out” that type of work, even if it meant sacrificing some of the quality of homemade.
It’s similar to what we do today every time we eat out instead of cooking at home or buying a box of cookies or even a tube of cookie dough rather than making and baking our own. With all the work that goes into holiday celebrations, who can blame a person for buying fruitcake instead of making it?
Unfortunately, there were many, many bad mass-produced fruitcakes. But that doesn’t mean they are all bad. Any number of chefs is sure to have at least one good version of it floating around in their recipe books.
Grandma Day’s Fruitcake
Below is my late Grandmother Day’s recipe for fruitcake. I say it is hers, but as with many grandmas, their recipes likely came from sources like Betty Crocker, any number of women’s magazines, or the Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook.
Sure, every Grandma tweaked it in her own way, a little bit more or less of this or that, but as the old saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun.
- 1/2 cup honey
- 2/3 cup of Sherry or Brandy (do not use cooking sherry or brandy)
- 2 cups light raisins
- 2 cups muscat raisins
- 2 cups currants
- 8 oz. dried candied orange peel
- 8 oz dried candied citron peel
- 1 cup pitted dates (pre-chopped)
- 1 cup dried prunes
- 1 cup dried apricots
- 8 oz diced candied lemon peel
- 16 oz diced candied pineapple
- 8 oz candied cherries halved red & green
- 2 c coarsely chopped pecans
- 2 cups soft butter
- 2 1/2 cups light brown sugar firmly packed
- 8 eggs
- 4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1/2 allspice
- 1tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp baking soda
Prepare one 10-inch tube or four small baking loaf pans, grease, line with heavy brown wrapping paper (butcher’s paper or thick parchment), grease lightly again, and set aside.
Sift together the flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and baking soda and set aside.
In a saucepan, add prunes, dates, and apricots, cover with water, and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes covered. Drain and cool; chop fine. Add them back to the saucepan along with the honey and Sherry or Brandy, bring to a boil, and then immediately remove from the heat, cover and let cool. Set aside.
In a very large bowl, combine the raisins, currants, pineapple, candied peels, cherries, and pecans and set aside. Preheat oven to 275°F.
Cream the butter until light, add sugar gradually, beating until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating until light and fluffy. At a low speed, gradually spoon in the flour mixture until combined.
Add the batter, along with the prune, date, and apricot mixture to the fruit and nuts. Mix until everything is evenly distributed throughout the mixture. Spoon into baking pans, and then transfer pans to the oven, baking at 275°F for four hours until a toothpick test comes out clean.
Just prior to removing them from the oven, soak large pieces of cheesecloth in Brandy or Sherry. Allow the fruitcakes to cool and remove them from the pans and peel off the paper. Wrap completely in the soaked cheesecloths and store them in airtight containers. Every five days, wet the cheesecloth with the Sherry or Brandy. When ready to serve, decorate with any leftover dried fruits and nuts.
As long as it is kept in a cool environment in an airtight container, and you wet the cheesecloth with Brandy or Sherry every five days, it should keep up to two months.