The Holiday season on upon us and that means all sort of cakes, cookies and candies will make their way into our diet. As we all know those holiday calories don’t really count because our New Years’ resolution will make that all go away. There is one Christmas food that seems to have survived the ages, haunts us really, though no one seems to know why. The proverbial FRUITCAKE! Everyone seems to have one though, no one seems knows where it came from. If you try to eat it your teeth are hermetically sealed to and the only way to freedom is by a blow torch. We have one, fruitcake, not the blow torch. I think it is in a closet, again not the blow torch. We’re afraid to go near it.
Let’s pay homage to the Fruitcake – that rock hard, hockey puck of a disc that if you got a whiff it would probably knock you off your feet. I ran across this article several years ago while I was teaching a class on Christmas delicacies. Not that I consider the Fruitcake a delicacy, but some how it seems to be a Christmas tradition. I don’t know who wrote this article but it is brilliant. My thanks to this author and I share with you.
DID someone send you one of those hard as a rock cakes again this year? Are you convinced that whoever did couldn’t possibly like you and yours very much? Well, if so, please read on for an interesting look at the history of fruitcake and what they want from all of us.
A fruitcake is a geological homemade cake. Charles Dickens
I never met a fruitcake I liked. The Dorfman Archives
Is there any food product anywhere that is more ridiculed and parodied during the holiday season than the poor old fruitcake? I once heard it said that there is really only one floating around the entire world. It is hard and stale because over the years it has been passed from person to person every holiday season since time immemorial. No one can eat it or use it for anything other than a gift for someone not liked, an alternate doorstop, brick or paperweight. HOW did this happen? Is it because the word fruitcake has become a synonym for a person whose elevator doesn’t ride to the top floor? Or is it just because it’s rather unappetizing? Who knows the truth? The fruitcake bogeyman, that’s who! Fruitcake usually contains candied fruit, citron (made from the thick peel of the citrus fruit of the same name), dried fruit, fruit rind, nuts, spices and some sort of liquor or brandy. The ratio of fruit and nuts to batter is fairly high, with just enough cake batter to hold it all together. This results in a very dense, heavy cake.
Fruitcakes have traditionally been classified as either light or dark, although it is not necessarily the color that counts. (It’s almost like those green sandwiches in The Odd Couple, which Walter Mathau refers to as “either very new cheese or very old meat.”) The lighter ones are less rich than their darker cousins and have subtler flavors and aroma. They are made with granulated sugar, light corn syrup, almonds, golden raisins, pineapple and apricots. The darker cakes are considered by some bakers to be the top of the line. They are much bolder in flavor and appearance. These get their color from molasses, brown sugar, raisins, prunes, dates, cherries, pecans and walnuts. For most people, fruitcake conjures up an image of a comestible that is hard as a rock, easier to cut with a welding torch than a knife and is almost always associated with the holiday season. There seems no sympathy for its fate; not even Spam goes through what the venerable fruitcake does. Its durability seems due at least in part to its legendary ability to remain edible for weeks or months (or even years or centuries, if my opening theory is correct).
Food scholars date fruitcake back to ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. According to some historians, Egyptian fruitcake was considered an essential food for the afterlife and there are those today who maintain that this is the only thing they are good for. In ancient Rome, raisins, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds were added to barley mash, making the fruitcake not only handy and lethal catapult ammunition, but also hearty compact foodstuff for the long campaigns waged by the conquering Roman legions. Centuries later, during the Middle Ages, preserved fruits, honey and spices were added, bumping the status of fruitcake up from granola bar to decadent dessert. “Pickled” or “aged” fruitcakes, as their devotees (and there aren’t many) like to call them, have the legendary ability to last a long time. Crusaders were said to have packed cakes into their saddlebags and backpacks, presumably because there were few bakeries along the rocky road (the road, not the ice cream) to the Holy Grail. Panforte, a thin chewy fruitcake originating in Italy more than a thousand years ago and taken on The Crusades, is still made today.
The history of fruitcake is also closely related to the European nut harvests of the 1700s. After the harvest, accumulated nuts were mixed and made into a fruitcake that was saved until the following year. At that time, the fruitcake was consumed in the hope that its symbolism would bring the blessing of another successful harvest. No one knows for sure why and how the fruitcake became associated with the holidays, but it most likely came from the English who passed out slices of cake to poor women who sang Christmas carols in the street during the late 1700s. It is known that in England by the end of the 18th century there were laws restricting the use of plum cake (plum being the generic word for dried fruit at the time) to Christmas, Easter, weddings, christenings and funerals. The Victorians enjoyed their fruitcakes. Even today it remains a custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of dark fruitcake under their pillow at night so they will dream of the person they will marry. It is said that Queen Victoria once waited a year to devour a birthday fruitcake because she felt it showed restraint. (Or was it merely a case of royal dislike? Only her hairdresser knows for sure) .
The role of the fruitcake in American history is dubious and cloudy. One theory presented by a historian who couldn’t quite locate his credentials dates back to the days of the American Revolutionary War. Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, asked Benjamin Franklin to come up with an easy to use barricade material to guard against incoming British cannon fire. Benjamin Franklin thought about it, went to bed early and rose early, healthy, wealthy and wise enough to tell the waiting general about his mother-in-law’s fruitloaf. Her attempt at some kind of bread had been so hard that his uncle had broken a tooth while biting into it at the previous year’s holiday dinner! It is not known if the general followed Franklin’s advice. It’s more likely that he never asked him again. Immigrants from Germany, England, The Caribbean and other parts of the world brought their own style of fruitcakes to the United States and that’s why no one can agree on the definition of a fruitcake. The ones displayed in groceries are almost all Americanized versions of the classic. Mandatory ingredients include red and green candied cherries, pineapple, citron and raisins, with some pecans or other nuts thrown in or on top of the cake. The more expensive fruitcakes contain brandy, bourbon or rum; the less expensive can be doctored at home, should one be sinfully inclined.
This article expresses my sympathies for the forlorn fruitcake. It’s about as serious as one can get. Since this is rather a long blog I will share my recipe for a fruit cake next time. I’m not going to make it this year and probably not for the next several years… the one in the closet still scares me.
P.S I broke the cardinal sin of blogging. It’s been over a week. My apologizes!