“People make fun of fruit cakes, but I like them.” said cousin Joyce. Joyce is visiting from Macon, Georgia, original home of the Claxton Bakery, a major baker of fruit cakes. The often maligned cakes, studded with candied fruits and nuts, are a holiday tradition going back centuries. Often soaked with rum, bourbon, or brandy, fruitcake may sometimes be the butt of a joke, but it’s still beloved by many.
Sliced so that the colorful fruit nuggets show through, fruitcake is a cheerful addition to platters of holiday sweets. Cultures around the world all have their own version. Fruitcake was very popular in Victorian England and traveled to all the corners of the Empire: called Christmas Cake in Canada; soaked with rum in the Bahamas; dosed with brandy in New Zealand; popular year-round in Australia and India; and known as Black Cake in the Caribbean.
Beyond the Empire, fruitcakes are seasonal favorites across Europe – Panettone & Panforte in Italy, Stollen in Germany, Gâteau aux Fruits (simply called Cake) in France, Bolo Rei in Portugal, Bolo de Higo in Spain, and Cozonac in Romania.
Candied fruits are the foundation of fruitcakes. Like so many beloved foods, they have their origin in an early food-preservation technique. Soaking fruit or fruit peel in heated sugar syrup prevented spoilage and extended shelf life – valuable and important before refrigeration. Fruit was being candied in the Middle East as early as the 14th century. Arabs brought the technique to Europe where the process was widespread by the 16th century. When plentiful sugar from the new world colonies came to Europe, candied fruit became less expensive, and the cake’s popularity soared. Fruits commonly candied today include cherries, pineapple, dates, and citrus peel as well as nuts – most famously chestnuts known as Marron glacé.
In America, fruitcakes are loaded with nuts along with the fruit giving us the saying: Nutty as a Fruitcake. Most commercial cakes are produced across the south near the sources for high quality pecans.
The family run Claxton Bakery, in Claxton, Georgia between Savannah and Macon, is one of the largest fruitcake bakeries in America. In the season, over a hundred bakers produce a staggering number of cakes available in stores or sold as holiday season fundraisers. The Collin Street Bakery near Dallas in Corsicana, Texas makes their famous cakes based on a German recipe.
Like Rodney Dangerfield, fruitcakes don’t get much respect. I’m told that late night host Johnny Carson had a running joke that there was only one fruitcake in America – constantly re-gifted. His schtick caught on, so that paradoxically, the cakes are universally derided even as they continue to be popular.
Making a fruitcake at home is a challenging but rewarding baking project. An internet search turns up lot of recipes, some traditional and some substituting dried fruit for candied. Celebrity chefs, food bloggers, and even King Arthur flour all weigh in with their own ideas.
In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, I must say that I’ve not been a big fan of fruitcake. As a child, in the inexplicable way of small children, I developed a dislike for candied fruit, that extended to fruit cake. This was very disappointing to my parents, but what can you do? These things happen.
When presented with a slice, I’ve been known to nibble around the chunks of fruit, eating all the boozy cake. Lately I’ve begun to understand the appeal of fruit cake and have come to enjoy a few slices over the holiday season. Now, if they just made a chocolate chip fruitcake, that might seal the deal.
Fruitcakes were a holiday staple in Victorian England. WSHU Public Radio host and essayist David Bouchier hosts an annual afternoon-long, holiday season Victorian Christmas program with music, stories, and lore about the Victorian era, where so many of our Christmas traditions originated. The highlight of the show, for me, is the recitation of his grandmother’s fruitcake recipe. Told with a droll sense of humor and insight into the times, the list of ingredients and baking method are a far cry from the precise recipes we’re accustomed to. Click here for David Bouchier’s Christmas Pudding Recipe.
Angelo at A-S Foods on New Canaan Ave. stocks several brands of Pandoro and Panettone. “Try this one from Cova & Co.,” he said, “It’s the best one you’ll ever have.” If you have any leftover Panettone that has gotten a little dry, it makes great french toast, too.
Fruitcake from any culture is part of our holiday heritage. It only needs a good PR campaign to regain its rightful place. In the meantime, give it a try, you may be pleasantly surprised!