WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Turkey, ham, or prime rib roast?
Pumpkin or sweet potato pie? We can probably all come to reasonable conclusions that all of these are perfectly acceptable foods at Christmas time.
However, fruitcake seems to be the one polarizing holiday confection where people either lovingly defend it or vehemently condemn it. What is it about this sweet, often boozy brick that is so polarizing?
Fruitcakes have been around for a very, very long time. The first recipe we can find written down anywhere is in a collection of Roman recipes from around the 5th century CE called Apicius.
It contains a recipe for a fruitcake that uses pomegranate, raisins, pine nuts, with barley. Variations soon sprang up all over Europe.
In fact, nearly every different region of Italy has its own variation of it. 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, which once had been 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 tropic regions to Europe and the American colonies, could be preserved on a mass scale.
Suddenly the fruitcake was available to the world. Indeed it was, as you can find fruitcake recipes from all over the world. There are recipes on nearly every continent.
Fruitcake has even been found in Antarctica. Unfortunately, it was part of an expedition that no one survived, but it wasn’t the fruitcake’s fault.
Beginning of slander
So, where does the fruitcake slander begin? Did it start with the insulting idiom “nutty as a fruitcake?”
Nutty as an insult by itself 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 that’s been 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, 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.
We do it 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 something like a fruitcake?
Like many things that get mass-produced, sometimes they’re good, and sometimes they’re bad. Unfortunately, there were many, many bad mass-produced fruitcakes.
Still, that doesn’t mean they are all bad. I’m sure any number of those celebrity chefs has at least one good version of it floating around in their recipe books.
Worse is those who commit the fruitcake slander yet have never tried it for themselves.
Grandma Day’s Fruitcake
Below is my late Grandmother Day’s recipe for fruitcake. I say it is hers, but like most grandmas, these recipes likely came from places like Betty Crocker, any number of women’s magazines, or the Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook.
Sure, every Grandma tweaked it in their 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. If you try the recipe, let me know how it goes: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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.
For more KSN holiday recipes, click here!