Poor fruitcake. Every year, it's laughed at and abused-hurled into the air, used as a doorstop, tossed in the garbage. Yet every year it makes its sad appearance, wrapped hopefully in its traditional bow. Today, more people make jokes about fruitcake than have actually tasted it. Some holiday tradition.
It wasn't always this way. Stuffed with fruit and nuts and drenched in alcohol, the fruitcake has been around since at least the 15th century. (Not-must I say it?-the exact same fruitcake.) The Crusaders were said to pack a few slices to sustain them on their travels. Early in the 18th century, "plum cakes" were banned throughout Europe , deemed too sinful to be eaten. In Victorian England, fruitcake was de rigueur at tea parties. Often a symbol of celebration, fruitcake has enjoyed pride of place at weddings, birthdays, and Christmas parties.
In my own family, my aunts and my grandmother never failed to present us on Christmas Day with a giant tin of beautifully decorated cookies-plus a conspicuous tinfoil brick. The six dozen cookies were gone by December 26. The fruitcake? No one else claimed any of it, so I squirreled it away, nibbling on each intensely flavored bite for weeks, till only a stubborn bit of neon-green fruit was left.
Loyal though I am to fruitcake in all its forms, I do understand that it's exactly that neon fruit that represents this cake's identity problem. It doesn't have to be that way. A great fruitcake begins with top-quality candied fruit and nuts. Two good sources for ingredients are The Baker's Catalogue (www.kingarthurflour.com) and VineTree Orchards (www.vinetreeorchards.com).
Also crucial is just the right recipe, of course. If you're looking for a traditional intensely sweet spiced cake, try the Dark Fruitcake recipe from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which can be made with or without the brandy. Other traditional fruitcakes, along with more adventurous versions using coffee, marzipan, or chocolate, can also be found right here in the Epicurious Recipe Database. If you go for the alcoholic fruitcake, give it time-in fact, start gathering your ingredients as soon as you finish reading this; often a fruitcake's deep flavors will emerge only after weeks or even months of sitting undisturbed.
My aunt spent 20 years making fruitcake but would never touch the stuff herself. This year, don't just give away your creation-make it the centerpiece of your own holiday party, and above all, save a slice for yourself.
Finally, if even your homemade fruitcake is a failure, send your friends Collin Street Bakery's time-honored version instead-you can order the cakes online at www.collinstreet.com.
Then send your own failed version to the town of Manitou Springs, CO, where the hard-core anti-fruitcakistas gather for the Great Fruitcake Toss (www.manitousprings.org). Your offering might not break the record (1,116 feet for a one-pounder). But you'll still be part of that other fruitcake tradition.
By Clare O'Shea
Photo by Lara Ferroni
MORE FROM EPICURIOUS.COM
Food News and Views From All Over
The Chef Demonstrates Recipes for a Traditional Italian Christmas Eve Dinner
Delicious, Top-Rated Holiday Cookies That Are Perfect to Give-And Get
Gourmet Baskets, Boxes, and Buckets for Under $100
Bartender Eben Freeman Explains the Fundamentals of Progressive Cocktails in Five Videos