Giving Fruitcake a Good Name

There are few gifts more vilified, more dreaded or ridiculed than fruitcake, which is too often mass produced with cheap ingredients. Who doesn’t join the laughter when a coworker opens the gleaming, bejeweled brick of cake at the office gift exchange?

It’s a shame, really, because fruitcake, at its best, is a delicious mix of dried fruits and nuts, bound together by sugar, flour, eggs, and spices. Most of us only know the cake at its worst, rock hard, laced with day-glo candied fruit and bitter citron. Liberally bathed in alcohol, a fruitcake can last more than ten years, a fact that only adds to its supernatural horror. No wonder people in Manitou Springs, Colorado toss them every winter during the Great Fruitcake Toss.

The idea of making cakes with dried fruits and honey dates back to ancient times. Fruitcakes were a means of food preservation. Not only could fruits be conserved, but they could be served out of season, when fresh fruit was unavailable. Egyptians considered fruitcake an essential food for the afterlife (and some of the cakes could outlast you), while the conquering force of the Roman legions was fruitcake-powered.

The fruitcakes we know and… well, love… came from the Middle Ages, when sweet ingredients like honey and spices became more widely available. The arrival of cheap sugar in Europe from the colonies, beginning in the 16th century, resulted in a flourishing of sweet, fruitcake-like breads, including Italian panettone, black cake (common in Jamaica and Trinidad), dreikonigsbrot, king cake, babka, and my personal favorite, stollen.

Stollen… yum

So what makes something a fruitcake? The fruit-to-cake ratio is pivotal. Anything less than 50% fruit is not really a fruitcake. The fruitcakes from Swiss Colony in Monroe, Wisconsin, contain around 75% fruit and nuts.

And despite what you commonly see in grocery stores, candied fruits in colors that suggest some kind of nuclear disaster are not obligatory and should be avoided. Naturally sweet, dried fruits are the key to turning fruitcake hate into love.

The fruit and nut to cake ratio appears right but those colors only
reinforce fruitcake’s poor reputation.

Alcohol allows for long-term storage and also helps to mellow the sweetness of the ingredients. Fruitcakes actually do taste better with age because the dried fruit contains tannins, like wine, that are released over time to create complex flavors and aromas.

Like all things, fruitcake can be great, amazing even, done right. Don’t let the imitations fool you.

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