Monday, January 5, 2015

breaking the fruitcake barrier

I am intrigued by fruitcake. Why are so many are so bad? Why do people continue to make them? Why the fake red and green chemical chunks? It's all so mysterious.

I suppose that fruitcakes had a very logical reason for being, at least back in the beginning they did. Back then, a cake built from dried fruits made sense. Everyone had dried fruit (and dried fish, dried venison, dried herbs, etc.), so they used what they had. Plus, the natural sugars from the dried fruit decreased the need for expensive, store-bought sugar. Preserving the cake with liquor made sense, too. They sure didn't have any freezers for long-term storage.

Actually, I just made all that stuff up. I don't know anything about the origins of fruitcake. But it sounded good, right?

As I see it, there is absolutely no justification for the current existence of florescent-colored, sticky-sweet, fruitcake atrocities. You'd think, what with modernization and evolution and all that, fruitcakes would either be a relic of the past or a knock-dead delicious dessert. In a world of chocolate and butter, I see no need for anything less.

Unless!

Unless fruitcakes are, in their true, unadulterated form, truly delicious. This, my friends, is my hunch. And this, my friends, is why on December of 2014 I set about on a quest to break the fruitcake barrier.

Spoiler alert: I failed.

***



Some foodie friends told me about their family fruitcake that everyone, including children, loved. I took down their recipe. I asked detailed questions. I ran a fruitcake background check, a sort of cross-examination of people who had actually tasted the cake. I sourced the last bottle of concord grape wine in town and then made my husband go get it. And then I made the cake.

It took three weeks. The fruits soaked in rum and wine for two of those weeks, and after the cake was baked, it sat wrapped in wax paper for another full week. The cake looked promising.




Deception.

On Christmas Eve, we finally cut into it. And it was awful: bitter, gummy in the middle, and so overpoweringly alcoholic that it made my eyes water. Or perhaps my eyes watered from the disappointment? I don't know. But it was bad. Really, truly, irrevocably bad.


Part of the problem was me, I'm pretty sure. See, the recipe called for lots of minced orange and lemon rind. So I bought real lemons and oranges, carefully cut off the rinds to minimize pith, and then minced them up. But after adding them to the fruit cocktail, I learned, through further questioning, that the recipe meant candied peels. Oops. So that probably explained the bitter.

As for the gumminess—my fault, again. Fifteen more minutes in the oven would've fixed that problem.

But the alcohol, now. That was not my mistake. I followed the recipe to a tee. I had thought that because the copious amounts of alcohol were added pre-baking, much of the kick would be knocked out in the two-hour baking time. I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

***

At our family reunion, I brought up the mystifying topic of fruitcakes. Opinions varied. Someone suggested that we each come to the next gathering with a fruitcake and then have a taste test competition. I suggested that we make it more interesting by also bringing a catapult to launch the losing cakes... perhaps at the losing cooks. I was feeling vindictive.

***

Through the grapevine I heard that one of my friends was experimenting with fruitcake, so once we returned from Pennsylvania, I emailed him to suggest a fruitcake tasting party. He came bearing not only his fruitcake, but his father-in-law's, too.

Both cakes were completely different. The non-alcoholic one was like a fruit bar with large chunks of chewy fruit layered together. The other was like a dark, fruity bread that, even though it had been bathed in rum post-baking, only tasted mildly of alcohol. Both were delicious but neither was exactly what I had in mind: something outstandingly fruity while still maintaining an element of cakeyness.

When it came time to sample my cake, my friend took a tentative taste and then shook his head. It was unanimous: the cake was inedible. Let me tell you, it felt awfully good to finally toss that cake to the chickens. Also? My kids were so scarred by my failure that they refused to taste the cakes my friend brought. In their minds, fruitcake equaled poison. This fruitcake obsession of mine was not off to a good start.

***

Still, I'm not giving up. Deep in my soul, I believe—oh, I believe!—there is a fruitcake out there for me, somewhere. And full disclosure: I have another recipe in the works. It just might be my crowning fruitcake glory. Then again, it might not. I don't exactly have a great track record.

In the meantime, tell me: what is your relationship with fruitcake? Have you ever eaten a good one? If so, share! Because I am going to break this fruitcake barrier, so help me everyone.

This same time, years previous: buckwheat apple pancakes, sweet and spicy popcorn, and my jackpot.

28 comments:

  1. I ate some of the 'foodie friends' fruitcake yesterday. A bit alcohol tasting for me (I don't prefer my food to taste of alcohol. Period.) but still quite edible and I might say it could have been delicious had I not been sated by the huge array of other christmas desserts that were available for the tasting. Aunt V

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm pretty sure the fresh peel was a key player in the cake flopping so violently.

      Delete
  2. LOL. I can relate. I've been searching for the perfect fruitcake myself. One year I tried dried fruit (apricots is one I remembered) as opposed to the candied "stuff". Double yuk.

    My Mom used to make fruitcake every year. She would make it in September I think. She spent a lot of time an effort making them. Too bad nobody really liked fruitcake. The cheese cloth that wrapped the cake would be soaked in rum or whiskey (I think) which she freshened every week or so. First it stayed in the refrigerator then got frozen. On Christmas we all take a piece. When the kids moved out of the house we each got a W.H.O.L.E. cake for ourselves. It would take a year to eat it. (Stayed preserved in the freezer.) But now what I would give to have a WHOLE cake made by my Mom. :(

    Keep us posted on the fruitcake challenge! I'd love to find a recipe I like.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is some of the best fruitcake I've ever had: http://www.fruitcakesbydeb.com/ I realize it may not be super helpful as it's not a recipe. I'll be excited to see if you find the perfect recipe.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Had lots of fruitcake in the UK, and it was usually nice, especially drenched in warm custard the way it was always served. But here we make seed cakes more often. -MAC

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Drenched in warm custard? That sounds lovely.

      Delete
    2. Wondering if that cake is, in fact, Christmas pud? My mom (and now my sister) always made a pudding (steamed fruitcake, drenched in either a rum or brandied hard sauce or custard)? Mmmm...

      I'm very partial to the black cakes of the Caribbean, but never quite get around to experimenting.

      Great. Now I want cake soaked in booze. I love booze in my cake.

      Delete
  5. I LOVE fruitcake!! I spend all of December collecting them from friends who don't like them, then I freeze them to eat all year. The best ones I've ever had are baked by the monks of Holy Cross Abbey and the ones from Assumption Abbey. Holy Cross also makes fritters - fruitcake slices dipped in chocolate. Delish. Unfortunately their kitchen is under renovation so they weren't shipping any this Christmas (sob.) But that's OK because I also like random grocery store fruitcakes, the ones from Neiman Marcus, the neighbor's mother-in-law's "secret" recipe ones, the ones that look like bricks, the ones that other people are about to throw away….any fruitcake is good fruitcake!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. The Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, TX has an excellent Pecan Fruitcake, rich and filled with Pecans, can't go wrong with Pecans! I would replace the fruit rubber with pecans!

    ReplyDelete
  7. A lady gifted my family her home made fruitcake one year and its been 30 years since and I still drool thinking about it again.

    ReplyDelete
  8. For a few years now, I've pondered making fruitcake. This year, when a friend gave me a citron melon and I candied some of it was the closest I've gotten to actually doing it.
    My husband's grandmother passed down a recipe for what she called a 'fruitcake mini muffin'. We call them grandma's fruitcake cookie and I make them, every year. They are easy peasy - can of condensed milk, crushed graham crackers, dates, pecans, maraschino cherries - and they taste way better after they have sat for a few days. That's the closest we get to fruitcake here.
    That said, I'd be up for a fruitcake challenge.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I once had an urge to make fruitcake. And then the urge passed, so I made something delicious instead.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is probably the closest thing to a fruitcake that I would eat:
    http://www.kingarthurflour.com/blog/2009/12/08/fruit-full-%E2%80%99tis-the-season/#more-13048

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That looks quite yummy but still it's a bit more cakey than I'm looking for, at least for THIS particular quest.

      Delete
  11. Hi! I'm in the u.k and a rich fruit cake is a big part of Christmas. Either iced with marzipan and royal icing. Or left unadorned. It needs longer than 2 hrs. Typically up to 4 at a very low heat. Google 'Delia Smith Christmas cake'. It should take you to her page. She's quite a traditional cook and a bit of a British tradition. Her recipe is pretty fool proof. Hope this helps. Liz

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This looks very similar to the one I tried, minus the grape concord wine and with only 12 hours of soaking the fruit, not two weeks. It also has the fruit peel---candied. I'm feeling kind of bad about the cake I made. I'm pretty sure I ruined it myself, with that raw peel. I didn't give it a fair chance...

      Delete
  12. I'm from the UK, and rich, dark fruit cake is definitely a 'thing' over here. Most households seem to buy or make one for Christmas and then quietly dispose of it sometime around Easter, as it never seems to get eaten ... I've never known this kind of cake to be eaten with custard though (they're usually topped with marzipan and icing) but at this time of year we do like our fruity, stodgy puddings which just aren't right without custard.

    If you're interested in a British-style rich fruit cake then I'd recommend looking at Delila Smith's classic Christmas cake - http://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/cuisine/european/english/classic-christmas-cake.html. For something more modern, Nigella Lawson has a chocolate fruit cake which is also very good - http://www.nigella.com/recipes/view/chocolate-fruit-cake.

    ReplyDelete
  13. My mother makes fruitcake, though I couldn't tell you the last time I tried it, that's how much of a fan I am. She and my brother both love it, though.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I have been down the fruitcake road, and I have given up - sort of. Here's my report on the fruitcake I made last year: http://thriftathome.blogspot.com/2013/01/i-didnt-like-fruitcake.html

    I don't really know what those weird chemical colored hunks are, but I do use them in Grandma's Christmas bread, which we all adore. I consider this a cousin of fruitcake and I am satisfied.

    However. I am following your quest eagerly, so please do report again. I am still tempted by Laurie Colwin's legendary black cake.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hey! I just re-read the comments on my fruitcake post - you might want to do some research there. I have some readers who are experienced fruitcake bakers, and Hazel is British where fruitcake is the norm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It cracks me up that one of your readers hates fruitcake and makes a ton of it anyway for family members who love it. That's love!

      Delete
  16. Our daughter grew up eating the fruitcake I've always made (my Mom's recipe) and couldn't understand when she starting being aware of all the jokes being made about fruitcake and how much everyone hated it. HER fruitcake was delicious! Mine (and now her's) is baked in three loaf pans so it looks more like a sweet bread. If you want, go way down to my Search box on the right hand side bar of my blog and enter "Fruitcake. " The first post to show will be "My Mom's Fruitcake." It may not be exactly what you're looking for, but might give you some ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I have made Laurie Colwin's black cake. It was good! Definitely worth the effort. Although I haven't made it lately. I will admit that I refuse to use the luminescent cherries and go with dried sour cherries as a substitute.

    Lately I've made mincemeat. While I prefer the fruit heavy flavor, all the rolling out of the little pie crusts is probably more work than a black cake.

    Someday I will make a panforte--an Italian fruit cake like item, all fruit and nuts held together with only the smallest amount of batter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are way ahead of me in the Traditional Christmas Baking Department. Fruitcake AND mincemeat AND panforte? I have so much to learn!

      Delete
  18. Hello,

    The recipe below was my grandmother's. She made it when I was a child so it's at least 50-60 years old. She's long gone and none of us can remember how she got it - family or friend so may even be older. It's "white", heavy and more along the lines of a sweetbread.

    Dee

    White Fruit Cake

    1 c. butter or margarine (or combination)
    2 c. sugar
    ½ c. orange or pineapple juice
    5 beaten eggs
    1 tsp. vanilla
    1 tsp. lemon extract
    3 c. flour
    ½ tsp. salt
    1 tsp. baking powder
    1 tsp. mace
    1 c. white raisins *see note
    1 c. chopped dates *see note
    ½ c. candied pineapple *see note
    ½ c. candied red and green cherries *see note
    1 c. nuts (walnuts/pecans or combination) *see note

    NOTE: Fruit and nut amounts can be increased or decreased (or varied) based on personal preference. Most candied fruit contains citron which my family doesn’t like so I make sure it’s not in whatever candied fruit I buy. I’ll eat the pineapple but am not a fan of cherries so “my” loaf usually consists of the bowl scrapings. A couple love cherries so I add more to “their” loaves.

    Dredging fruits in a portion of flour will help to keep them separated.

    Cream butter and sugar, add beaten eggs and mix. Add juice, vanilla and extract – mix. Add salt, baking powder and mace – mix. Add remaining flour – mix well. Add floured fruit and nuts – mix well.

    Recipe makes 3 large or 5-6 smaller loaves. By making loaves smaller in height (not overfilling pans) prevents loaves from getting too dark/less chance of burning) during baking.

    Line loaf pans with brown paper (I use paper bags, cut fat strip for side to side, narrow strip end to end with bottom being doubled), then w/ waxed paper (inside brown paper). Brown paper helps to prevent bottoms/side from getting too dark and also absorbs grease. Bake 1 hour at 350° or until toothpick comes out clean from center of loaf. When done, immediately flip loaves out of pans and remove waxed paper. Cool – right side up on wire racks.

    I haven’t done this for years, but did in the past. While unwrapped loaf is still warm, place on plate and pour brandy (Korbel) or liquor or choice over it slowly, letting it soak in. Keep doing until as much brandy as you prefer has been absorbed.

    ReplyDelete
  19. You're so right about there being so many fruitcakes that are so bad! :D I finally got around to posting my fruitcake recipe on November 17. My mother and I developed the recipe together when I was a teenager. It's gotten raves even from people who profess to hate fruitcake, so maybe this is the one that will break your fruitcake barrier! :D Oh, about the candied peel: I only ever put it in the fruitcake if it's my own homemade candied orange peel (which I'm posting tomorrow).

    ReplyDelete