Fruitcake in January? Who’d have thought it? Well, we did, one January about a decade ago, when all the candied fruit in the supermarket was marked down to half price or less. I also had three pounds of fresh pecans from Gene, my Louisiana penpal. First, though, we had to select a recipe.
I’d be the first to confess, we didn’t lack any number of recipes to choose from. But which one? A fruitcake with chocolate in it? Or not? With pecans and walnuts? Or just one or the other? With or without citron? And just what IS citron, anyway?
And whose recipe should we choose? James Beard’s mother’s black fruitcake? Rose Levy Beranbaum’s less fruity fruitcake? Ken Haedrich’s dark and moist cranberry nut fruitcake? Jeff Smith’s Gram’s Lighter Applesauce fruitcake? Or how about Jeff Smith’s Bourbon Fruitcake?*
Martha Washington’s Fruitcake? Grover Cleveland’s Fruitcake? White Fruitcake from the White House cookbook? Jane Grigson’s Country Christmas Cake? Brigadier Anne Field’s Keswick Fruitcake? Jane Garmey’s Dundee Cake? Or, what about Crown Jewel Cake, a recipe created in honor of the Coronation of her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, II? Or the Bridal cake made for Queen Victoria on her wedding day? Or what about Queen Mary’s Jubilee Cake, created in honor of Queen Mary and King George the Fifth?
Years ago, before embarking on making real fruitcake, I attempted pseudo fruitcakes such as Gumdrop Fruitcake (no black gumdrops), Evie’s Texas fruitcake that was packed with candied pineapple, candied cherries and pecans and sweetened condensed milk—no flour!—and a fruitcake (of sorts) made with candy orange slices. I think I only made that one once, back in the mid 1960s. I used to also make something called “Chip & Cherry” fruitcake that was made with a date bar mix, chocolate chips and maraschino cherries. Nice, but definitely not the real thing.
For years, I collected fruitcake stories, mostly from various newspapers—but I have to tell you, the very best fruitcake story is told in “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, recounted in SOOK’S COOK BOOK by Marie Rudisill under “SOOK’S FAMOUS ‘CHRISTMAS MEMORY FRUITCAKE’ with an excerpt of the story recounted in Moira Hodgon’s little book “FAVORITE FRUITCAKES”.
Per Wikipedia, A Christmas Memory was originally published in Mademoiselle Magazine in December 1956. It was reprinted in The Selected Writings of Truman Capote in 1963. It was issued in a stand-alone hardcover edition by Random House in 1966, and it has been published in many editions and anthologies since.
The largely autobiographical story, which takes place in the 1930s, describes a period in the lives of the seven-year-old narrator and an elderly woman who is his distant cousin and best friend. The evocative narrative focuses on country life, friendship, and the joy of giving during the Christmas season, and it also gently yet poignantly touches on loneliness and loss.
Now a holiday classic, “A Christmas Memory” has been broadcasted, recorded, filmed, and staged multiple times, in award-winning productions. And I am pleased to be able to tell you that you can read the entire story simply by Googling “A Christmas Memory”.
Sook was a frail little old distant cousin dependent on the charity of better-off southern relatives, who, Truman recalled, would go out collecting pecans – windfalls, I think, – in the fall, collecting as many as possible in a little wagon and then embarked on making fruitcakes. The fruitcakes went to the many different people that Sook considered deserving. Truman was a little boy at the time and Sook an elderly cousin. This is the most charming, delightful, poignant story about fruitcake that you will ever read. ***
As you can imagine, this fruitcake making can be serious business. Deciding which recipe to follow is just the first step. In the final analysis, we agreed on a recipe called Holiday Fruitcake which appeared in the October 25, 1990 Los Angeles Times food section. As I recall, we chose this particular recipe for two reasons; one, that Kathie Jenkins, a Times Test Kitchen person, had declared that this recipe was a general favorite. Kathie claimed, “Even avowed fruitcake haters could be seen secretly sneaking a piece of this moist cake”.
The second reason was simply this: Kathie Jenkins had called me up on the telephone one time and did an over-the phone interview with me which appeared in the L.A. Times. I felt she couldn’t possibly steer me in the wrong direction when it came to fruitcake.
We also had all of the right ingredients on hand to make Holiday Fruitcake. (this is always a step in the right direction—I grew up in a household where I had free reign in the kitchen, allowed to cook or bake anything I wanted—the only criteria being, all of the ingredients had to be available in the pantry. I never, as a child, asked my mother to buy a special ingredient for my cookie baking binges, nor did we ever make special forays to the corner grocery store for a particular item. I have been stocking up on candied fruit and nuts (on sale after the holidays) for years, just to have it ready when I’m in a fruitcake frame of mind.
One sunny January afternoon, I put Bob and our friend Luther to work shelling pecans and chopping almonds. They were also enlisted to chopping dried apricots and dates. The two of them sat outside under the almost-bare mulberry trees, chopping fruits and nuts and drinking wine while occasionally letting me know how difficult their jobs were and how they were only doing all of this for me. Meanwhile, I was greasing loaf pans, creaming butter and sugars and making sure no one had tapped into the bottle of Grand Marnier. (Other than myself, of course).
As I recall, it took the largest bowl in the house—a huge stainless steel container–to get it all mixed and we all took turns trying to stir the big wooden spoon in this…well, let’s face it – a thick muck of fruit and nuts. As we stirred, I explained to the fellows that taking a turn at stirring the fruitcake is good luck, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years—and possibly, the more they took turns stirring, the more good luck they would have next year.
Eventually the lumpy batter all ended up in four loaf pans – and I hovered cautiously over the kitchen stove, throughout the baking process.
When the cakes were finally baked, removed from the pans and cooling on racks, we congratulated ourselves and celebrated with … maybe just a teeny little bit of Grand Marnier.
When the cakes were completely cold, they were wrapped in cheese cloth and then heavy-duty aluminum foil, placed in Tupperware containers and stored in the refrigerator where they seemed to take up an awful lot of space. Fortunately, I had two refrigerators. The one in the laundry room was primarily for storing all sorts of fruits, pickles, juices, jellies and jams—most of it homemade.
Packing the fruitcakes into Tupperware to go into the refrigerator reminded me of the time I had a large, primarily nut, fruitcake aging in the refrigerator for a year—this was back in the days when I was married and raising four sons. I had taken the children to Ohio to visit my parents for the summer. When we returned, I noticed an empty space in the refrigerator. “Where,” I asked Jim, “is the fruitcake I was aging?”
“Oh…” he said indifferently, “I didn’t know what it was so I threw it out”. I could have cried. I may have.
Since Bob never discarded anything I figured we were on fairly safe ground.
Every month or six weeks, I took out the fruitcakes, doused them with brandy and re-wrapped them.
Eventually, Christmas 2002 rolled around and we took the cakes out, wrapped them in plastic wrap and gave them to only very special people. (Translate this to mean: people who appreciate fruitcake). I gave one of the fruitcakes to my friend Mary Jaynne who confessed, she hates fruitcake but her husband Steve likes it. A week or so later, she called to tell me, this was the best fruitcake she has ever tasted. Aha! A convert!
A friend from work who was from Oklahoma carried on, when I gave her a fruitcake, like I had given her the crown jewels. My conclusion to all of this is, if you think you hate fruitcake, that’s only because you haven’t tasted the right fruitcake.
I embarked on a search to learn a little bit more about fruitcake. Google.com offers about 16,000 hits on their website.
Marjorie Dorfman writes, “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 in 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…”
Aged fruitcakes, says Dorfman, were carried by the Crusaders in their saddle bags and backpacks. Panforte, a thin chewy fruitcake originating in Italy more than a thousand years ago and taken on the Crusades, is still made today. She says that 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 for the following year. At that time, the fruitcake was consumed in the hope that its symbolism would bring the blessing of another successful harvest.
Dorfman writes that no one knows for sure why or how the fruitcake became associated with holidays; it certainly seems to have originated in England. Since the 1700s, fruitcake has been used in ceremonial celebrations of all kinds throughout Europe. It is known that by the end of the 18th century in England, there were laws restricting the use of plum cake (plum being a generic word for dried fruits at the time) to Christmas, Easter, weddings, christenings and funerals. Even today, it is still customary 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.
Traditionally, the top layer of the wedding cake, called the “Bride’s Cake” was a dark fruitcake that was removed and stored for the bridal couple to savor on their anniversaries. According to another fruitcake historian, a separate piece of fruitcake from the “Groom’s cake” was wrapped in a wedding napkin, tied with a white ribbon and put at each guest’s place at the table. Single women would put it under their pillow to dream of a groom of their own.
One of my favorite reference books is the Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, published in 1953. With regard to fruitcakes, the Wise people wrote, “Whether known as wedding cakes, or holiday cakes, the fruit cakes are rich, dark, spicy mixtures, containing a proportionately great amount of fruits and nuts to the cake batter which holds them together. The traditional English fruitcake is almost a fruit pudding, so rich and dark it is. Several of the recipes that follow, while called New England Wedding Cake or Bride’s Cake, would be considered, judging from the ingredients and today’s standards, to be fruitcakes.
Immigrants from Germany, England, The Caribbean and other parts of the world brought their own style of fruitcakes to the United States which is one of the reasons why no one can agree on the definition of a fruitcake.
Fruitcake is the target of numerous comedians and humorists, including Calvin Trillin who originally stated there is just one fruitcake in the world, never eaten but simply passed around from family to family. I’ve seen this quotation credited to any number of other humorists, including Johnny Carson but trust me on this, A Fruitcake theory originated with Calvin Trillin in “Enough’s Enough” published in 1988, and reprinted in Moira Hodgson’s charming cookbook “FAVORITE FRUITCAKES” published by HarperCollins in 1993.
Columnist John DeMers, writing for the Houston Chronicle (December 10, 2001), disputed the single fruitcake theory and claims he has caught two or more fruitcakes together. Actually, says DeMers—he loves fruitcake. “I don’t mean those weird, difficult or just plain off-kilter characters who have attracted the nickname of late,” he explains. “I mean fruitcake, the real thing, its dark mass given gravity by candied fruit and no small amount of booze.” DeMers also claims to have heard all the jokes and says they aren’t very creative. And, since I, too, love good fruitcake, I have to agree on all counts.
Even so, I am going to share two things with you; one is the recipe for Holiday Fruitcake as it appeared in the Los Angeles Times on October 25, 1990—this is the fruitcake recipe that we made one January a decade ago. No, we didn’t use it as a doorstop—we sampled paper-thin slices with our coffee or tea until there was nothing left.
Since moving to the high desert in 2008, I embarked on making fruitcake one more time, where it has been stored in my garage (formerly the laundry room) refrigerator.
1 pound dried apricots, chopped
1 pound dates, chopped
1 pound golden raisins
1 pound red and green candied cherries
1 pound red and green candied pineapple
1 pound almonds, blanched, toasted and chopped
1 pound pecans, broken into pieces
4 cups flour
1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cups brown sugar, packed
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup rum
¼ cup brandy
Juice and zest of 2 oranges
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
Thoroughly grease 4 (8×5”) loaf pans. Combine apricots, dates, raisins, candied cherries and pineapple, almonds and pecans in large bowl. Mix in 1 cup flour to dredge mixture. Set aside.
Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating after each addition.
Sift remaining flour with cloves, cinnamon, mace, baking soda and salt. Add to creamed mixture alternately with rum, brandy, ¼ cup Grand Marnier, and fruit juices and zests. Fold into fruit-nut mixture. Pour into loaf pans. Bake at 300 degrees 2 ½ to 3 hours or until wood pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pans 15 minutes. Remove from pans onto wire rack and let cool to room temperature. Moisten 4 pieces cheesecloth, large enough to cover each loaf, with Grand Marnier, and wrap around each loaf. Wrap Grand Marnier-soaked loaves in foil and refrigerate or store in cool place note: thelonger it ages, the better your fruitcake will taste.
There was a third reason why I selected this particular recipe—I’m not sure whether or not I should be confessing this but here goes: one reason it was chosen was for the pound of dried apricots. You know how I hate to waste anything – the year before (2001), we made an apricot-almond cordial that “aged” for a year in the pantry. It made heavenly little gifts after it was strained and bottled in little glass formerly-catsup bottles. But then…I had all of that diced apricot left over. What to do? I put some in a wonderful fruity turkey stuffing – but still had a lot left over. Aha! It went into the fruitcake.
The following agrees with my sense of humor; it’s a fruitcake recipe from John Murphy.
“The holiday’s coming, here’s a fruitcake recipe that will help take the stress out of this normally stressful time
1 cup water
1 cup of sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups dried fruit
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup brown sugar
3 ounces lemon juice
1 cup of nuts
1 gallon of Absolute Vodka
First, sample the vodka to check for freshness. Take a large bowl. Check the vodka again to be sure it is of the highest quality. Pour 1 level cup of the vodka and drink it. Repeat. Repeat again. Turn on the electric mixer, beat 1 cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add water, eggs, and 1 teaspoon sugar and beat again. Make surr the vodca is still ok. Cry another turp. Turn off mixers. Chuck in the cup of dried fruit or something.
Mix on the turner.
If the fried druit gets struck on the beaterers, pry it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the vodka to check for tonsistancity. Next, sniff 2 cups of salt. Or something. Who cares? Check the vodka. Now sniff the lemon juice and strain your nuts. Add one Table. Spoon.
Of sugar or something. Whatever. Grease the oven.
Turn the cake ttin 350 degrees. Don’t forget to beat off the turner. Whip the bowl out the window. Check the vidka again. Go to bed.
Who the hell likes fruitcake anyway……………”
*Both of the books referenced in this article are available on Amazon.com and Alibris.com. There are other editions published since I acquired mine
Happy Holidays! May all your fruitcakes be right!
–Sandra Lee Smith