Johnny Carson on fruitcakes: "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other."
There was a time when I agreed with Johnny Carson. I had enjoyed years and years of scrumptious blond fruitcakes full of dried fruit and nuts, wrapped all together in a moist bourbon flavored batter that only got better with time. Suddenly a few years ago I realized all the fruitcake bakers in my family were no longer with us, and I had failed to ask those little old ladies how to make a fruitcake. I tried, I really did, but I could not for the life of me make a decent fruitcake that looked, felt, or tasted like those I had known. I made a fatal mistake, I bought one at a grocery store. I knew it looked different, and it felt different, and goodness it sure did smell different, but I wanted a fruitcake. I sliced myself a piece of that store bought fruitcake. Have you ever tried chewing corrugated cardboard spread with bright colorful jellybeanish super sweet lumps of goo, into which somebody sprinkled a miniscule grain or two of a soggy soft walnut? It is not a delightful experience. I thought I had made a mistake and eaten the box it came in, but no, that was the store bought fruitcake.
Before we go any farther with this story, please read Dutchlady's article on dried fruit. It runs right along with this one today, and should be read before you venture into the fruitcakes that I have known.
Culinary lore claims that ancient Egyptians placed an early version of the fruitcake in the tombs of loved ones. Along with a lot of other food, it was to be carried with them into the afterlife. It wasn't until Roman times when pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, raisins, and barley mash were mixed together to form a ring shaped dessert. Prized for its portability and shelf life, Roman soldiers often brought fruitcake with them to the battlefields. Later with the crusaders, preserved fruit, spices and honey were added to the mix and were also carried on long journeys. In the 1400s, the British began their love affair with the fruitcake when dried fruit from the Mediterranean first arrived. In the Europe of the 1700s a ceremonial type of fruitcake was baked at the end of the nut harvest and saved and eaten the next year to celebrate the beginning of the next harvest, hoping it would bring them another successful harvest season. After the harvest, nuts were mixed and made into a new fruitcake that was saved until the following year. The year old fruitcakes served as a blessing for each new harvest.
In the meantime, starting in the 16th century, inexpensive sugar from the American Colonies and the discovery that high concentration of sugar could preserve fruits, an excess of candied fruit appeared, thus making fruitcakes more affordable, long lasting, and popular.
In the early 18th century, fruitcake (plum cakes then) was outlawed entirely throughout continental Europe. They were considered "sinfully rich", and by the end of the century there were laws restricting their use. Eventually the ban was lifted for holidays and special occasions. Between the middle 1800s through early 1900, fruitcake was again extremely popular. A Victorian tea would not have been complete without the addition of a slice of fruitcake. Queen Victoria is said to have waited a year to eat a fruitcake she received for her birthday because she felt it showed restraint, moderation and good taste. It was also the custom of young unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of the cake, traditionally a dark fruitcake, under their pillow at night so they would dream of the person they were to marry.
Let's move forward to today. Here we are in a love/hate relationship with the fruitcake. I wonder why this happened. Progress, I tell you, we simply are the victims of progress. Now if we had continued to use the recipes of our ancestors, and had not stepped a foot into the avenues of a store bought, mass produced, sweet cardboard flavored, jellybeaned fruitcake, we would all be happy to serve it to our family and friends. I know this is absolutely without a doubt true. Here is how I know.
It isn't necessarily the color that counts. They come in blond, brown and almost black. I have had good and bad of all of them, but my taste favors the blonds. When I was growing up, we dried all our fruit, apples, grapes, pears, strawberries and any other fruit we could pick from a tree or bush or plant that grew in the Appalachians. We also canned it, but for the fruitcake, we needed dried fruit. And we dried it right out in the sunshine that filtered its way down through the mountains to our back yards. We used honey from the honey combs of my grandfather. We used black walnuts shelled by my very own stained fingers, and even hickory nuts if the squirrels didn't grab them first. And we used apple butter, apple sauce, or molasses to provide moisture. With a little shower of Kentucky bourbon sprinkled occasionally over the cheesecloth that covered it for a month or so before the holidays, it was a treat that carried us through those long cold winters. There was never even a slice left over that could be saved for the next year, nor did I ever waste a slice under my pillow trying to see the face of my true love. No true love could ever come between me and that fruitcake.
By the early 1970's, when my oldest relatives were no longer with me, I began my search for the best commercial fruitcake, and my efforts to remember how to bake my own. It didn't happen in either instance. About the same time, I began regular visits to my great uncle who lived in central Kentucky in the historic town of Bardstown. He knew of my love for fruitcake, and he didn't have my great grandmother's recipe either, but he sure did remember her fruitcakes. He took a liking to me, as I did to him and one November not long after I had spent some time with him, I received for my birthday a package. The package came from Gethsemani Farms in New Haven. I was not familiar with the name, but I did know the little town of New Haven was near Bardstown. Inside the package I found a round old fashioned decorative tin, and my first thought was those packaged sugar cookies that appear in grocery stores. I lifted the top from the tin, and I was immediately struck dumb by the wonderful scent of aged fruit and bourbon. My great uncle had sent me a store bought fruitcake like none I had ever known. Just remembering that first one can bring a tear or two. Well, that fruitcake did not last till Christmas, but it didn't matter because by Christmas, he had sent another one. By the end of his life in 1981, I had 14 empty Gethsemani Farm tins, two for every year since he and I first talked. I still have them.
After that date, I played around with what I thought might be their ingredients, but I really never mastered the taste that I knew would be just right, neither that of my grandmothers nor that of Gethsemani Farms. The two were not identical, but very similar, and they both contained dried fruit, which I thought was the secret. Now before I take you along for the rest of my story, I'd really like to share some interesting facts with you. I came upon most of them when I was looking for recipes over the years, and when the internet came along and I was still searching, I kept track of what I found. I do have a large file about fruitcakes. Keep in mind that some of them reflect a lot of negative opinions, based upon those store bought cardboard things that I mentioned earlier.
In early January in Manitou Springs, Colorado, the town gathers for the Annual Great Fruitcake Toss. Participants must bring one canned good to enter. Canned goods seem to be part of a food drive that the community participates in. And of course, participants must also bring one gifted fruitcake. Cakes can be hurled, tossed, or launched by a pneumatic device such as a spud gun. Prizes are given for winners, and though I don't know what the prizes are, I have known some fruitcakes I could use to enter.
The writer Erica Javik says that nuts and fruits should compose 50% of the fruitcake. She also says that at its best a fruitcake is a delicious mix of dried fruits and nuts, bound by flour, sugar, eggs and a few spices. But at its worst, according to Javik, fruitcake is rock hard, laced with day glo candied fruit and bitter citron. I would add cardboard to that mix.
Each year the post office places dense packages of baked goods at Christmas into the mailboxes of citizens. Recently some 3,000 pounds of fruitcake were delivered to Iraq. I sure hope it was the good kind. Good or bad, they still have a shelf life of up to three years and of course are mail friendly.
In 1969 astronauts aboard Apollo II ate two meals a day. The first consisted of bacon, sugar cookie cubes, coffee and a pineapple grapefruit drink, the fruitcake starred in meal #2, alongside beef stew and cream of chicken soup.
The average fruitcake, particularly those that are storebought, weighs about two pounds, and it will serve 6 to 8 people. The sugar content is so high, it can sit on a counter for months, without a drop of mold developing. Sugar stabilizes moisture, and the density of sugar reduces the water content, thus its ability to bind to bacteria.
The main ingredients of a good fruitcake vary, but this is what I believe will work: flour, sugar, eggs, and whiskey (or brandy or rum or none at all) and whatever dried fruit you find in your region. A little applesauce, some honey, a spice or three, a touch of molasses, and you have a fruitcake. If you omit the alcoholic beverage, then you should increase this second list of possible moistening agents. If you stay within the confines of this list, I doubt that you will want to use your fruitcake as a doorstop, a paperweight or any sort of projectile.
With that in mind, here is a recipe that I have put together over the years of my experimentation. It works well for me, though I know my grandmothers might do it a little differently:
3 cups of all purpose flour
about 1 and a half cups of sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and maybe a tiny pinch more
a couple of teaspoons of finely ground cinnamon
1/2 cup of applesauce
1/4 cup of the lightest molasses you can find
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups of coarsely cut nuts: walnuts, pecans, or whatever is available to you, but they should be meaty nuts (save a few halves to decorate the top)
6 cups of dried fruit pieces: dates, raisins, apples, apricots, peaches, pears, currants, plums, figs, or again, whatever is available to you. The curing process of the cake makes any combination delightful. (candied cherries could be used here if you prefer, I don't like candied fruit so I don't use the cherries, but they do add a decorative touch to the top of the cake)
Preheat oven to 275 F and line your baking pan with foil. Remember, this cake doesn't really rise very much, so judge the size of the pan by the size of your combined ingredients. If you make loaves of fruitcake, then with this recipe you will fill two 9 by 5 inch pans.
Mix all the ingredients, except the fruit and nuts to form the batter, then fold in the fruit and nuts until distributed and evenly coated with the batter. Spread into the pan(s), and place the nut halves and cherries (if you use them) on top as decoration. Bake for about two and a half hours or (maybe 3 if you are using a single large pan), inserting a wooden pick to see if it comes out clean. You might want to cover the cake with foil during the last hour to keep it from becoming too brown, or too crusty. To avoid a crust, remove from pans when done, then let completely cool before removing foil.
Next, when cool, wrap in cheese cloth, and add two tablespoons of liquid (bourbon, rum, brandy, or even a little orange juice if you prefer) poured over the tops of your cake. Add another spoonful of the liquid about once a week, as the fruitcake is curing. Don't unwrap until you are ready to cut the cake.
Another point to remember, your dried fruit will be sliced through whenever you cut the cake, so it doesn't matter the size of them. If I use plums or anything that has been dried whole, I usually cut them in half before putting them in the cake. I also use walnuts and pecans, but that is easily available to me, and I happen to like them. Others would work just as well.
Be very careful that in adding liquid you don't make your cake sticky. You want moist, not mush. You also want the moisture to be absorbed evenly throughout, so don't dump your tablespoonsful in one spot on the cheesecloth.
*****One more step could be included: soak the dried fruit in bourbon, rum or brandy for a couple of hours before mixing the fruit into the batter. This extra lacing of your choice of flavor increases the final whiskey taste, and is too overpowering for me, but I do know that some folks take this extra step. Again, the choice is yours.
Gethsemani Farms, a Trappist monastery, came from France to the hills of central Kentucky in the mid 1800's. They are strictly a mail order business, and their century old recipe for delicious gift items, including the fruitcake, is without doubt among the very best. I am on their mailing list, I am on their e mail list, and I read their catalog from cover to cover. When the leaves start to fall, you can believe I start watching my mail for that catalog. You might have a favorite of your own, I just happen to like Gethsemani for the consistency of their product and for their Kentucky location. I have never been disappointed, and in addition to my own fruitcakes, it is nice to know I can order one from them whenever I find myself out of the baking mood.
I would like to be able to send you free samples, but since I never have any extra to share, you will just have to jump right in and bake your own. If you prefer a darker cake, simply use dark brown sugar, dark fruit, and use more molasses to replace the applesauce. Trust me, I would never steer you wrong with one of my favorite treats. I also promise you it will never taste like cardboard and jellybeans, and I doubt you would ever use it as a football.
Happy Holidays and Happy Baking.
In my search for the very best fruitcake, I used these sources:
And special thanks go to the folks at Gethsemani Farms in New Haven, Ky. Their products are all delicious treats, and their friendly service is without blemish. You can find them here: http://www.gethsemanifarms.org/