Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fruitcake Lovers, Unite!

By Jeff Burns

It’s time to end the hate. I’ve never understood the depths of hatred and vitriol at this time of year directed toward one of the greatest foods known to man:  fruitcake.  Jokes abound in popular culture, and too many people refuse to even give it a try.  Even in the latest Christmas episode of the television series Grimm, writers couldn’t resist.  In the story, the good guys are on the trail of three pubescent boys who turn into Christmas-destroying demons for the 12 days of Christmas.  The only thing that can stop their rampaging is to fill them with fruitcake.  After a fruitcake binge, they awaken in their normal state.  The writers had fun with some jokes about both pubescent boys and fruitcake.

Fruitcakes are practically as old as civilization. Ancient Romans mixed pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins with barley mash. In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added.  The triangular trade of the 17th and 18th centuries made sugar much more available and created an excess of candied fruit, so fruitcakes became even more affordable and widespread.

In many countries, fruitcake is eaten in the winter, around the Christmas season, because that’s when nuts and preserved fruits are available, and it has a long shelf life, especially when soaked in alcohol.  Immigrants to America brought their own country’s recipes, like stollen from Germany, panforte from Italy, plum puddings from Britain, and gateau aux fruits from France. In the early 1900s, fruitcakes became a mail order staple, and two towns, Claxton Georgia and Corsicana Texas, became famous for their fruitcake companies. Fruitcakes are still found in gift catalogs and used as fundraisers.  They’re everywhere, and probably millions of pounds of fruitcake are baked each year, and yet fruitcakes seem to be more reviled than broccoli or liver.  I say enough!  I’m proud to say I love homemade fruitcakes.

Just about every year of my childhood saw my mother baking fruitcakes, the same way her mother and grandmother had for many years.  She grew up in the late 1930s in South Georgia, and her family consisted of sharecroppers and hardscrabble subsistence farmers. For her and her brother, Christmas stocking treats were often such exotic gifts as navel oranges and brazil nuts.  However, every year, the women would use whatever nuts and preserved fruits they had to make fruitcakes, usually mixing the ingredients in a large washtub with a paddle.

I don’t have her recipe; she rarely used recipes for anything.  For fruitcakes, it was just a matter of mixing together what she had.  Several years ago, I found a traditional southern recipe published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that looked and tasted like my mother’s, and I used it several times. This weekend I decide it’s time to bake, and I can’t find the recipe anywhere.  So I searched online and found a couple of similar recipes, but neither one was perfect, and I went ahead, combining recipes and improvising along the way.  That’s my style of cooking anyway; I guess it’s in the genes.

First, I combine the nuts and fruit in a dishpan. I used walnuts, pecans, and macadamia nuts and an assortment of candied fruits available this time of year in any supermarket.   (Warning:  last year, I didn’t get into the fruitcake mood until after January 1 and couldn’t find fruit as a result.  Store managers tend to pack up or get rid of leftovers as soon as Christmas is done.)  I like a dense cake, with lots of fruit and nuts in every bite.  Next, I poured in some bourbon and let it all sit for an hour or so.  Then, I mixed in a couple of cups of flour to keep the fruit and nuts from sticking together.  At this point, I can eat the mixed fruit and nuts by the handful, and did.

All that’s left is to mix the batter ingredients together and combine.  Then spoon the mixture into pans and bake for 2 ½ -3 hours at low temperature. Fruitcakes are baked low and slow.  I use different size loaf pans so that some cakes can be given away or wrapped and frozen for use all year.  Fruitcakes mellow and develop an even better taste over time.

Don’t let yourself be a hater! Find a fruitcake recipe and give it a try or find a baker and share their version.  I bet you’ll actually like it.


Fruitcake 101, Smithsonian Magazine
Traditional Southern fruitcake recipe from at least 1921
One of the recipes that inspired my creation.

The other recipe that inspired my creation
1 lb. mixed candied fruit (2 c.)
1 lb. whole dates -- pitted
1/2 lb. whole candied cherries (1 c.)
1/4 lb. chopped citron
1 cup raisins
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup walnut halves
4 cups sifted flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 cup butter or regular margarine
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 c. buttermilk

Prepare baking pans by cutting parchment or brown paper liners for bottoms.  Grease each piece of paper with shortening. Place in pans. Top with a layer of waxed paper. Grease top of paper and inside of pans generously with shortening.

Place candied fruit, dates, cherries, citron, raisins, pecan and walnut halves in 6-qt. bowl.  Sift together flour, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg; reserve 1/2 cup. Add reserved dry ingredients to fruit/nut mixture; mix to coat.  Cream together butter and sugar in bowl until light and fluffy at medium speed of electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add baking soda to dry ingredients. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk to creamed mixture, beating well after each addition. Add batter to fruit/nut mixture, mixing well. Turn into prepared 10-inch tube pan or three 8x4x2 inch loaf pans. To decorate, place fruits and walnuts on top of batter to form a design.  Bake in 300ºF. oven 2 hours 30 minutes for 10-inch tube pan and 1 hour 30 minutes for loaf pans. Cool in pans on racks 10 minutes. Remove from pans; cool on racks. Wrap In waxed paper; then in aluminum foil. Store in covered container in cool place. Let mellow 2 weeks.

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