Let them eat Christmas: Making peace with the Holiday’s most polarizing dessert

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Fruitcake.traditional christmas fruitcake

Please, I implore you not to close the tab in a fit of holiday rage. Fruitcake isn’t nearly as terrible as the piles of bad press it gets. Yes, in many cases the math doesn’t add up. As comedian Jim Gaffigan once said, “Fruit: great. Cake: better. Fruitcake: nasty crap.”

The much debated cake is the official Yuletide baked (sometimes boiled) dessert whether we like it or not, and it has come a long way from its medieval roots.

While fruitcake has been around since Roman Emperors were calling the shots, the granddaddy of the modern brandy-soaked doorstop lies with Britain’s Christmas Pudding. A few weeks—not days, mind you— families all over the U.K. gather to make dense and boozy cakes with ingredients rarely found outside of a scullery maid’s pantry such as treacle and beef suet. Dried fruit, stout and sometimes nuts are stirred into the would be “Christmas pud,” stirred with a spoon held by every member in a given family. Stirring by committee, tradition states, is supposed to bring luck the whole year through. 

The black hillock is then boiled, an ode to the kitchens of England-past, and on Jesus’ Birthday, doused with brandy and set aflame. All of this sounds pretty gnarly, but there’s a reason this tradition survives: it actually tastes good. It’s dense, it’s darker than an overcooked rib-eye, but it’s also satisfying, especially when paired with a hard sauce or a dollop of ice cream. It’s perhaps most popular with carolers; the verse “please bring us some figgy pudding” in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is referring to this fruitcake rendition. 

Still, for most the very idea of fruitcake is a hard-sell. Understandable: the very sight of American-style versions, with fluorescent neon “fruit” bound between what we’re told is “cake” inspires fear in our hearts and digestive tracks, and little else. There are, however, “gateway fruitcakes” from just about every corner on planet earth. Here’s a few options, for the fruitcake-phobic.

Stollen – This dense German bread is chocked full of candied and/or dried fruits and caked with powdered sugar. Sometimes called “Christollen” named after exactly who you think. Dresden holds an entire festival, “Stollenfest” to commemorate the decadent bread. 

Panettone – While some may argue Panforte is Italy’s original fruitcake, the amount of flour in it is nearly negligible it’s almost gluten free. It’s far more candy than cake. Panettone (which comes from “pane di tono,” or “luxury cake”) takes Stollen and makes it less bread product and more cake. It remains a yeast dough, but it’s as light and as rich as brioche, full of raisins and candied fruit and usually packaged in ribboned boxes like a pair of Bruno Magli’s. The sexiest Italian export since Sophia Loren.

Cozonac – Christmas feasts from Moldova to Romania look similar to their western European counterparts. If one had to classify what made these stand apart, it would be the parts list. Dried fruits and sweetness are present in this bread, but it’s also packed with lemon zest, orange zest, nuts (both walnut and haze)l and in some cases turkish delight. And in true “everything fruitcake” fashion, the top is sprinkled with poppy seeds. 

Bollo de higo – Like panforte, only filled with figs and rolled into sausage like logs. About as nasty as it looks. Avoid like the plague. 

Yes, despite being beloved by the rest of the world, fruitcake is an object of ridicule by young and old stateside. Village Voice Robert Sietsema postulates that the negative press reached a fever pitch with Johnny Carson, who relayed his firm belief to The Tonight Show audiences that there’s actually only one fruitcake in existence that gets passed from family to family like a bad chain letter. 

Dr. Elmo, of “Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer” fame cemented fruitcake’s hard-to-swallow popularity with his 1992 hit “Grandma’s Killer Fruitcake” (Tougher than a truck-load of all beef jerky/Drier than a drought in Albuquerque). 

But don’t believe what you hear, read or tap your toes to.

Fruitcake is a wholesome tradition because when done correctly, it’s not only palatable, it’s delicious. Well-made cakes chocked with real fruit, carrying notes of brandy lightly toasted and topped with a dollop of mascarpone cheese beats the pants off any slice of red velvet.

But please, keep those mass-marketed grocery store bricks away from me.


Heirloom Fruitcake

Foodie Daily’s pick for the season? Heirloom Fruitcake, like they do it in Texas.

credit: Barry Batchelor/Anwar Hussein Collection/Getty Images
credit: Barry Batchelor/Anwar Hussein Collection/Getty Images

This fruitcake is a lot like the famed Corsicana, Texas fruitcake, which sits innocently at the epicenter of Star-Telegram’s “twisted story of greed, deceit, an all-too-trusting employer and a nearly perfect crime.” It’s dense. It’s delicious. And when Christmas dinner conversation starts drifting dangerously in the direction of politics, its scandal is the perfect emergency interjection.

Plan on making this several weeks before Christmas so it has time to cure. The cake exists primarily to hold the fruit and nuts together, unlike most fruitcakes that are mostly batter. Be sure to snip the fruit into tiny pieces — it’s tedious but worth it.

Ingredients:

(Yield: One 7-lb fruitcake)

1 lb candied cherry

1 lb candied pineapple

1⁄4 lb candied orange peel

1⁄4 candied lemon peel

1 cup shelled pecans

1 1⁄4 lbs pitted dates

1 lb golden raisin

1⁄2 lb dark raisin

1⁄2 lb currants

1 cup sifted flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda

1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg

1⁄2 teaspoon allspice

1 1⁄2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 cup butter

1 cup packed brown sugar, plus

2 tablespoons packed brown sugar

6 large eggs

1 1⁄2 teaspoons vanilla

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons orange juice

1⁄2 cup grape jelly

2 cups dark rum or 2 cups brandy or 2 cups grape juice

Directions:

Finely chop candied fruits and pecans.

Snip dates and raisins into small pieces with kitchen shears dipped in hot water occasionally to prevent stickiness.

Combine fruit and nuts in a bowl, add 2 or 3 T flour and toss to mix well.

Sift together flour, baking powder, soda, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. Set aside.

Cream butter until fluffy, then add brown sugar and gradually beat until light and fluffy.

Beat in eggs two at a time, then stir in vanilla, lemon juice, and orange juice.

Mix jelly and rum/juice until smooth. Add alternately to batter with dry ingredients.

Pour batter over fruit and mix throughly, using a wooden spoon or your hands.

Pour batter into 2 greased and lined loaf pans or 1 ten-inch tube pan.

Bake at 275 F for 3 1/2 hours.

Paint generously with grape juice/brandy and wrap in cheesecloth and foil, keeping refrigerated until Christmas time.

Paint on more juice once or twice per week.

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