Nothing says Christmas quite like a fruitcake or, at the very least, a fruitcake joke.
A quip attributed to former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson has it that “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
It is certainly earned its reputation for longevity.
Two friends from Iowa, US, have been exchanging the same fruitcake since the late 1950s. Even older is the fruitcake left behind in Antarctica by the explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1910. But the honour for the oldest known existing fruitcake goes to one that was baked in 1878 when Rutherford B Hayes was president of the United States.
What is amazing about these old fruitcakes is that people have tasted them and lived, meaning they are still edible after all these years. The trifecta of sugar, low moisture ingredients and some high-proof spirits make fruitcakes some of the longest-lasting foods in the world.
Fruitcake is an ancient goody, with the oldest versions a sort of energy bar made by the Romans to sustain their soldiers in battle. The Roman fruitcake was a mash of barley, honey, wine and dried fruit, often pomegranate seeds.
What you might recognise as a modern-style fruitcake a moist, leavened dessert studded with fruits and nuts was probably first baked in the early Middle Ages in Europe. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were symbols of culinary sophistication, and these sweet spices started appearing alongside fruit in many savoury dishes especially breads, but also main courses.
Before long, most cuisines had some sort of fruited bread or cakes that were early versions of the modern fruitcake.
Fruitcakes are different in Europe than they are in America. European fruitcakes are more like medieval fruited bread than the versions made in Great Britain and the United States. The two most common styles of fruitcake in Europe are stollen and panettone.
British and American versions are much more cakelike. For over-the-top extravagance, honours have to go to a British version that crowns a rich fruitcake with a layer of marzipan icing.
Fruitcakes were also popular due to their legendary shelf life, which, in an era before mechanical refrigeration, was extremely desirable.
Fruitcake aficionados will tell you that the best fruit cakes are matured – or “seasoned” in fruitcake lingo – for at least three months before they are cut. Seasoning not only improves the flavour of the fruitcake, but it makes it easier to slice.
Seasoning a fruitcake involves brushing your fruitcake periodically with your preferred distilled spirit before wrapping it tightly and letting it sit in a cool, dark place for up to two months. The traditional spirit of choice is brandy, but rum is also popular. In the American South, where fruitcake is extremely popular, bourbon is preferred. A well-seasoned fruitcake will get several spirit baths over the maturation period.
Try this recipe for Christmas fruitcake.
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup currants
1/2 cup sun dried cranberries
1/2 cup sun dried blueberries
1/2 cup sun dried cherries
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
Zest of one lemon, chopped coarsely
Zest of one orange, chopped coarsely
1/4 cup candied ginger, chopped
1 cup gold rum
1 cup sugar
5 ounces unsalted butter (1 1/4 sticks)
1 cup unfiltered apple juice
4 whole cloves, ground
6 allspice berries, ground
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken
Brandy for basting and/or spritzing
Combine dried fruits, candied ginger and both zests. Add rum and macerate overnight, or microwave for 5 minutes to re-hydrate fruit.
Place fruit and liquid in a non-reactive pot with the sugar, butter, apple juice and spices. Bring mixture to a boil stirring often, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for at least 15 minutes. (Batter can be completed up to this point, then covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before completing cake.)
Heat oven to 325 degrees.
Combine dry ingredients and sift into fruit mixture. Quickly bring batter together with a large wooden spoon, then stir in eggs one at a time until completely integrated, then fold in nuts. Spoon into a 10-inch non-stick loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Check for doneness by inserting toothpick into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, it’s done. If not, bake another 10 minutes, and check again.
Remove cake from oven and place on cooling rack or trivet. Baste or spritz top with brandy and allow to cool completely before turning out from pan.
When cake is completely cooled, seal in a tight sealing, food safe container. Every 2 to 3 days, feel the cake and if dry, spritz with brandy. The cake’s flavor will enhance considerably over the next two weeks. If you decide to give the cake as a gift, be sure to tell the recipient that they are very lucky indeed.