How did fruitcake come to be so reviled? Mention fruitcake to five people and four of them are sure to have something unkind to say about it, usually in the form of a cliché including the word ‘doorstop’ and the certainty that there is really only one single fruitcake in the world, endlessly regifted. Hahaha.
There is some funny fruitcake hate, for sure. Like this inflatable fruitcake, or this Edward Gorey illustration, or try Googling ‘fruitcake disposal’. But still. Most people can't really tell you why they hate fruitcake (and some may even confess that they've never actually tried it). Pressed, they are likely to finger the gross candied fruit and the hard, stale cake. I guess if that had been my experience of fruitcake, I'd probably hate it, too.
There was never a time when I didn't like fruitcake. My mother was apt to buy it around the holidays when I was a kid, and I remember it as dark and rich and sticky, packaged with rippled brown waxed paper that the dregs of the cake stuck to & I'd run my fingertip along it to get every last bit. My mother died when I was just 20, and fruitcake disappeared from my Christmas landscape.
In 1996, Saveur did a feature on fruitcake for their November/December issue, a lovely piece written by Christopher Hirsheimer. I've always baked a frenzy at Christmastime, and had long eyed fruitcake recipes. I even clipped a recipe from the New York Times for the Reagan's White House Fruitcake and tucked it into my little black recipe notebook, but it seemed such a monumental undertaking. Reading the Saveur piece, though, with its several recipes and its warm inviting photographs, was the final seduction. I took on the Classic Fruitcake, even making my own candied citrus peel.
All these years later, making fruitcake is my Christmas ritual of rituals. I start in late November or early December, ordering the mountains of fruits and nuts and candied peel (I just don't have the time to do it myself these days). An entire evening is devoted to the rhythmic chop-chopping, and the marinating fruit needs frequent tending to keep it evenly bathed as it waits for the final preparation. Then there's the ripening, the careful turning and feeding with bourbon, and the wrapping – first in layers of bourbon-soaked cheesecloth, then cellophane, finally in wrapping paper and ribbon.
I make two full batches, baked in small loaf pans so I end up with two dozen of them. Most are given to the growing group of addicts I've created, several are sold to pay for my habit, one is kept for family consumption, and a few are used to convert avowed fruitcake haters. Tell me you hate fruitcake, and I'm obligated to slip you a taste. I've changed a lot of minds. Next year, I think I'll need to increase my production to 3 dozen. Word is getting around, and more past recipients are now looking to purchase them for giving.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is the tale of Favor Johnson, an old Vermont farmer who bakes his first fruitcake out of gratitude to a helpful neighbor and ends up baking them for the entire village each Christmas. I totally understand the impulse; fruitcake takes hold of one that way.
Sadly, a few of mine have been given to the undeserving over the years. One woman, asked about it several months later, confessed to having thrown hers away, as she and her husband ‘aren't really fruitcake people’. Another, a business associate, squealed to a fellow recipient that he'd put his fruitcake out in the back yard for the deer. There are so many things wrong about this, but mostly it's just callous beyond belief to so carelessly dispose of something without a thought to the soul and effort that went into its making. Neither has ever been given another, of course, nor any other gift. And every fruitcake I send out into the world now is accompanied by a disclaimer:
This, apparently, has worked. Last summer, a near stranger approached me at a party to tell me how good my fruitcake is. I had to do a little sleuthing to figure out the chain of succession, but once I did I was sure to thank the original recipient (and cross them off the list).
I've tinkered with the original recipe to make it my own. I loathe glacéed cherries and pineapple, and so have substituted dried versions of each. Instead of using powdered instant espresso, I add 3 heaping tablespoons of finely ground espresso roast beans. I include almonds in addition to the walnuts and pecans, and toast them all lightly before adding them to the batter. I upped the flour and baking powder slightly, use unprocessed cane sugar, add the seeds from 2 vanilla beans, give it some salt, and sneak in a couple of tablespoons of Burnt Sugar Essence for a hint of bitterness and to ensure a good dark color.
The most significant change, the one that I think has the greatest effect on the finished cake, is that I no longer marinate the fruit for a week. This came about by happy accident, in a year when I was overwhelmed with work and late ordering fruit. I only had a day for marinating, but I noted that in the finished cakes, each fruit still tasted very clearly of itself. With long marinating, the flavors all blend together. I prefer tasting each individual fruit.
The cake that results from all this is heavy and dense, but deliciously moist. The ‘cake’ that binds the fruit and nuts is more like a kind of paste, and the loaf as a whole is quite crumbly (and nearly impossible to cut cleanly into slices). But the flavor is what it's about: deeply complex and fragrant; chocolatey, sweet, and bitter; fruity, nutty, and spicy. At every bite, a different flavor steps forward. And over it all is the buzz and honey of the bourbon it's soaked with after baking.
It's probably too late for anyone to start now and have finished fruitcake for Christmas, unless you have little else to do between now and then. If you do take it on, now or later, seek out the best quality ingredients you can find and afford, especially when it comes to the candied citrus peel. I get mine from Market Hall Foods. It's scandalously expensive, but it's not worth putting the effort into this if you're going to use cheap crap from the grocery store. Honest.
Classic Dark Fruitcake
Give yourself plenty of time and planning before taking this on. The fruit needs to marinate for at least 24 hours (or longer, if you choose), and the cakes should be ripened with alcohol for about a week before their release into the wild.
I've given the fruit and nut measurements in both volume and weight. The original recipe used volume only – 2 cups of this, 1 1/2 cups of that. But that's not at all helpful when you go to purchase supplies. Try going into a store or online to buy 1 1/2 cups of dried apricots. See what I mean? I've also given the weight of the dry ingredients, but in grams since it's more accurate.
2 cups (1 pound) pitted dates
2 cups (1 pound) candied orange peel
2 cups (1 pound) candied lemon peel
1 1/2 cups (1 pound) dried apricots
1 1/2 cups (1 pound) dried Calmyrna figs
1 1/2 cups (1 pound) dried tart cherries
1 1/2 cups (1 pound) dried pineapple
1 1/2 cups (1 pound) candied citron
1 cup (1 pound) crystallized ginger
3 cups (1 pound) seedless golden raisins (sultanas)
3 cups (1 pound) dried Zante currants
1 cup orange liqueur (Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
1 cup cognac
1 pound walnuts (pieces are fine)
1 pound pecans (pieces are fine)
1 pound almonds
3 cups (345g) flour
3 tbsp. (15g) cocoa powder
3 tbsp. (10g) finely ground espresso roast coffee beans
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt (2 tsp. if using fluffy kosher salt)
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground mace
1 1/4 cups molasses
2 tbsp. burnt sugar essence
1 lb. (4 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups (540g) unprocessed cane sugar (sucanat)
2 plump, soft vanilla beans (or 2 tsp. vanilla extract)
9 large eggs
Good-quality bourbon for ripening (I like Knob Creek)
- A large bowl for marinating the fruit. There will be a total of nearly 6 quarts of fruit, so the bowl should hold that AND have plenty of room for mixing. Alternatively, use large jars with screw-on tops. I have big plastic jars that pretzels came in from Costco; each holds about 2 gallons.
- Cookie sheets lined with parchment for toasting the nuts.
- A stand mixer for making the batter, plus a huge bowl – 15-quart at least – for blending the batter with the fruit and nuts. You can also use a hand mixer, but make sure you have a big enough bowl. And be prepared to mix in the fruit and nuts by hand.
- Pans for baking the cake. I use these nonstick mini-loaf pans, which have a capacity of 2 1/4 cups each. I was lucky to pick up a dozen of them at a GOOB sale; the batter for one batch fills 12 of them perfectly. Use any pans you like, just keep in mind that this a very sticky cake. Don't be tempted to use a fluted or otherwise fancy pan – you'll never get the cakes out cleanly. And don't forget to adjust your baking time accordingly.
Ahead of time:
Coarsely chop the dates, citrus peel, apricots, figs, cherries, citron, and ginger. Place in a large bowl or other suitable container, and stir in the raisins, currants, orange liqueur, and cognac. Cover and set aside in a cool place for 24 – 48 hours, stirring several times a day.
On baking day:
Prepare the pans for baking. Grease them well and line the bottoms with parchment. With non-stick pans, you can skip the grease, but still use the parchment. To cut a number of pieces of parchment at once, fold a large piece into as many layers as you'll need, then trace the bottom of the pan onto the top layer and cut through with a sharp knife or scissors.
Heat oven to 350°F. Toast the nuts, each variety separately, spread on a lined cookie sheet, until just beginning to color and become fragrant. The pecans will take 8 – 10 minutes, the walnuts a bit longer, and the almonds may take as long as 15 minutes. Allow the nuts to cool, then coarsely chop or grind them and combine them together in your giant mixing bowl. I highly recommend the Progressive nut grinder (as in the photo) for chopping. I'm able to grind 6 pounds of nuts in about 15 minutes. You can chop them by hand with a knife, or use a mezzaluna if you have one. You can also chop them in a food processor, but I find the grind too uneven – too many big chunks or even whole nuts, too much dust/paste.
Spread the nuts around the bottom of the bowl (this will help keep everything from sticking as you start to mix), then pour the marinated fruit on top.
Drop the oven temp. down to 225°.
Using a large whisk, combine the flour, cocoa, coffee, baking powder, salt, and spices in a medium bowl. Grease a 2-cup measuring cup (this keeps the molasses from sticking and allows it to pour out cleanly) and measure in the molasses, then add the burnt sugar essence.
Beat the butter until creamy, then add sugar and continue beating until light and fluffy. Using a small sharp knife, split the vanilla beans lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and add to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat in the eggs one or two at a time, blending the batter fully before adding the next egg(s).
Beat in the dry ingredients, alternating with the molasses, in three parts each. Scrape down the bowl and beaters and beat a little longer to be sure everything is well-blended. The mixture may look a little curdled, especially if the butter was very soft to start with.
Scrape the batter into the bowl with the fruit and nuts, and use a large rubber spatula to stir and combine the various elements. It's a very heavy, sticky batter, and will take some time and muscle to thoroughly blend it. But it's also a very forgiving batter, so there's not much danger of over-mixing.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pans, pressing with the back of the spoon to fill the corners. Fill the pans all the way, even with the top. The batter will only expand slightly with baking, and won't spill over the top.
Bake the cakes until set in the middle – slip a toothpick into the middle of one, and if it comes out clean, the cakes are done. For the mini-loaf pans, this will take about 2 1/2 hours. Cakes in larger pans will take longer, up to 5 hours for a 10-cup pan.
Remove the cakes to cooling racks and let cool for 20 minutes, then carefully turn out onto the racks while still a little warm. Brush each cake generously with bourbon (or cognac if you don't care for bourbon), using a full tablespoon for each cake.
Once the cakes are completely cooled, wrap them individually in plastic wrap. Brush each one with a tablespoon of bourbon (or cognac) every day for the next week. They are now ready to be set free.
I like to dress mine up for giving. Each one gets swaddled in bourbon-soaked cheesecloth, then sealed in cellophane. Then a I wrap them up in pretty paper and ribbon.
However it is you celebrate your holidays, I wish you peace and happiness, and all good things in the coming new year. And if you're in the neighborhood, do stop in for a slice of fruitcake.