It’s a tough life being the fruitcake of the dessert world. Most people don’t even like them around the holidays, banishing the hard loaves to a horrible re-gifting cycle until they become even more inedible than they first began.
Once quite a coveted food item, fruitcake served as a celebratory or wedding cake that dates back to ancient Roman times. What started off as a pomegranate seed, raisin, pine nut, and barley mash medley, eventually evolved to include honey, spices, and fruit preserves during the Middle Ages.
It’s common knowledge that fruitcake isn’t North America’s favourite sweet; it’s the butt of quite a few jokes. Take the Annual Fruitcake Toss in Colorado; while the event is mainly a food drive, people purge themselves of unwanted fruitcakes by tossing them in a competition.
If so loved in the past, when did the hatred begin?
Shedding further light on the origins of this dislike of fruitcake is that the dessert was often traditionally “saved” for an entire year before it was consumed. Whether a ceremonial fruitcake that marked the end and beginning of a new harvest, or Queen Victoria modestly saving the fruitcake for the following year, the outcome is the same. A 365-day-old cake has got to suck.
But get this. There are people (from this century) who actually love fruitcake. Advocates of the fruitcake claim that those who regard it with such disgust just haven’t had the right kind: one that’s homemade and prepared with love.
Contrary to popular belief, what makes a homemade fruitcake so “good” is said to be how long in advance it’s allowed to keep before it’s eaten. There’s so much sugar (thus, low water content) that it produces an unfavourable environment for bacteria. This ultimately allows the cake to sit day after day, without creating a new mouldy breed of civilization. According to fruitcake aficionados, this is key for a tasty cake.
Quality dried fruits and nuts are loaded into the cake and share a similar property to wine tannins, which release over time. Flavours are said to intensify as the loaf ripens and matures, and are undoubtedly the most important ingredient. Another vital ingredient is booze. It’s common for bakers to pour liquor – like rum – over the cake to add to its moisture and weight.
The average “ripening” of a fruitcake takes 4-6 weeks, but there are those who side with Queen Victoria and wait a whole year, soaking and brushing the cake with liquor once a week.
Whether it’s the nostalgia of yesteryear, or an old family recipe that keeps the fruitcake relevant, one thing is certain: fruitcakes are unkillable. And that is something that deserves respect.
Visit culinairemagazine.ca for Karine Moulin’s Reimagined Fruitcake recipe, as seen on our front cover.
Montreal native, Angelique is an award-winning Community Manager and senior Managing Editor for Cooking Channel’s “Bitchin’ Kitchen” and upcoming travel show “Bite This with Nadia G”. Twitter @angelique_p