Gearing Up for Fruitcake Season

Earlier this week, a What's Cooking reader expressed an interest in making fruitcake, the centuries-old dessert that Americans love to ridicule and Brits love to celebrate. Also known as plum cake, Christmas cake, black cake and wedding cake, fruitcake is a rich, dense cake studded with dried and candied fruit and usually marinated in booze for several weeks, sometimes months.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the fruit cake can be traced to the Middle Ages, when dried fruit began to arrive in Britain from Portugal and the E. Mediterranean. Sugar was cheap and plentiful, a reason to dip the dried fruit to further preserve and "candy" it. It's not clear exactly when alcohol entered the fruitcake equation, but recipe references to Madeira, rum and brandy all point in the direction of the 17th century, when British colonists boarded ships for the West Indies. The former British colony of Barbados is home to rum, after all. I'm betting that the alcohol was injected into the fruitcake to further extend its life, with the long ocean journeys of rumrunners in mind.

I've learned (but not yet confirmed) that the alcohol-steeped fruitcake of 18th-century Britain became so intoxicating that a law was limiting its consumption to special occasions -- weddings, funerals, Christmas. This would explain how the fruitcake came to be known as "Christmas cake."

The fruitcake didn't make its way to this country until the early 20th century, but seems to have had a bad reputation ever since it arrived. (Hmmm...maybe because American mail-order versions came without the booze?) The ridicule continues to this day; every January for the past 12 years, the town of Manitou Springs, Colo. has hosted a fruitcake toss, inviting residents to bring their unwanted fruitcakes and putting them to rest.

The late "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson was a big fan of dissing the fruitcake. On a show that aired in December 1985, Carson shares his theory (mp3 file) that "there's only one fruitcake in the world, and people keep passing it on when they get one."

"Ever notice that fruitcakes have little things on them like freeway reflector studs?" he asked his sidekick Ed McMahon, who, of course, chortled in response.

Despite (or rather because of) its checkered past, the fruitcake lives on, and in honor of its resilience, I have decided to make my very own. For guidance, I consulted my friend LaurelAnn Morley, chef/owner of The Cove, a restaurant in Barbados, where Christmas cake is a holiday staple. LaurelAnn suggests macerating the fruit in the booze for a month, but when I pressed her further about this lengthy requirement, she said that a week-long soak is just as good, and if absolutely necessary, even overnight will do.

With just five weeks and some change until Thanksgiving, I am going to soak my fruit this weekend, a combination of raisins, currants, candied cherries, citrus peel and maybe a mix of dried apricots, cranberries and prunes. I'll use a mix of good ole Barbadian rum, either port or Madeira and maybe some brandy. A two-week fruit soak would still give me time for three weeks to properly steep the cake in a tin.

If you're game to try, here's LaurelAnn's suggestions for soaking the fruit:

Fruit Maceration for Christmas Cake
from "Caribbean Recipes Old & New"

1 cup raisins
1 cup currants
1/2 cup candied cherries
1/2 cup candied citrus peel
1 cup mixed dried fruit
1 cup rum
1 cup sweet sherry or Port wine
1/2 cup brandy

Mix all ingredients together in an airtight jar for at least one month.

Join me on the fruitcake challenge! Stay tuned for more fruitcake chronicles in a few weeks.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 12, 2007; 12:14 PM ET Holiday Treats
Previous: Don't Worry, Be Heart-Happy With Walnuts | Next: A Sweet Potato Two-Fer


Please email us to report offensive comments.

What type or brand of candied cherries and citrus peel do you recommend? I think these ingredients are partly to blame for fruitcake's bad reputation. I suppose the two could be omitted entirely and replaced with dried cherries instead. Not sure about the citrus substitution though.

Posted by: H | October 12, 2007 1:22 PM

I avoid the candied cherries for precisely the reason mentioned by H. For candied citrus peel, check out the King Arthur Flour website. The peel is quite nice, and doesn't have the corn syrup and artificial color you find in the candied fruit mixes available at Giant and other large grocery chains. I also find that adding dried cherries (and cranberries) in lieu of the candied cherries can cut the sweetness of the cake just a bit. Dried cherries and cranberries are just two of the dried fruits I put in the cake (along with currants, golden raisins, diced figs and dates)-- all toward updating a now-ancient Virginia fruitcake recipe.

Posted by: Glenn | October 12, 2007 1:47 PM

My English MIL spent a lot of time the first Christmas I was in the family trying to make a Christmas cake that I could eat (no gluten, no lactose, no booze). She succeeded. It's wonderful, even without the marzipan and royal icing. She took her standard recipe and fiddled and kept records.
She didn't use candied peel/fruit. It was all a mix of dried cherries, raisins, cranberries and she loved the Trader Joe's bazaar of choices.

Posted by: Memory maker | October 12, 2007 2:29 PM

How does the fruitcake need to be stored? I've read about wrapping it and placing it in a tin. I just don't have anything so quaint as that. Can I wrap it in wax paper in a storage bag?

Posted by: Karen | October 15, 2007 8:17 PM

I was thinking for gifts this year, it would be fun to make small fruit cakes. Would it work to bake them in a muffin pan?

Posted by: Carly | October 15, 2007 8:18 PM

some of the above questions answered.
for Karen
Once the cake is cooked, cool slightly, pierce with a wodden skewer and pour over some RUM..Cover with wax paper and foil. COOL COMPLETELY.
when cool store in an airtight container. a plastic airtight one will do. Every week, open, pierce with skewer and douce with rum.
Caribbeancustoms require one to keep the top layer of a fruitcake till the Christening of the first child. Twelve years later...(I did have it frozen for all that time). I took it out, soaked it in about 2 cups of rum turning it every week.
It was served. I did make a fresh one thinking it was just for custom purposes that I would set it on the table. That was the only one that was consumed for my mother in lasw had made it and she passed away within a year of our marriage.I kept my promise to her!

Posted by: laurelann morley | October 16, 2007 8:31 PM

for Carly
Every year I would prepare fruit cakes in muffin pans using muffin sized liners for the anual Christmas party for the Old Ladies Home. They were cooled pricked with a woden skewer and douced with rum then stored in an airtight container. Then iced with hard or royal icing, decorated and sent off for the event. The ladies loved them for each had their own individual cake and because they are such keepers, they would save them taking small bites per day as their special little treat.

Posted by: laurelann morley | October 16, 2007 8:38 PM

Fruit cake is popular here in Australia as well. Because it is getting hot (we are expecting 30C in Canberra this weekend) I often make a boiled fruit cake for Christmas - moist and delicious but does not keep as well as traditional recipes. This is my Christmas cake recipe:

375g sultanas
250g currants
250g glace cherries, halved
250g glace apricots or pineapple (don't use pineapple if cake is to be kept more than 6 weeks)
250g butter
1 cup soft brown sugar, packed
½ cup brandy, scotch or rum
½ cup water
2t grated orange rind
1t grated lemon rind
1T treacle or golden syrup
5 eggs lightly beaten
1 ¾ cups plain flour
1/3 cup self raising flour
½ t bicarbonate of soda
1 cup of brandy, scotch or rum extra

Line a deep 23cm round or 20cm sq tin with bakewell paper, bringing paper 5cm above edge of tin. Combine fruit, sugar, brandy, water and butter in large pan. Stir over gentle heat until butter is melted and sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil, reduce heat, simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Stir in orange and lemon rinds, treacle and eggs. Stir in sifted dry ingredients and spread mixture evenly into prepared tin. Bake in a slow oven approximately 2 - 2 ½ hours. Cover top of hot cake with foil and allow to cool in tin. Stab all over with a skewer and pour over 1 cup of good quality scotch or rum or brandy. If storing, wrap cake in greaseproof paper then foil, do not wrap directly in foil, and store in airtight container.

Cake can be eaten within 24 hours or will keep for up to 3 months at room temperature or longer in freezer.

I always cover with a thick layer of almond marzipan but I don't ice it.

Posted by: Ailsa, Australia | October 18, 2007 5:23 PM

I've made my fruit cakes about 2 months ago. I douce them with brandy every month.I've iced a few with rolled fondant.Some advise that the iced cakes should be placed into a cardboard box and sealed as placing them in a plastic airtight container encourages moulding. Which is right? Do I need to freeze my iced fruit cake or can I just leave it in a cool, dry place?

For Carly:
It all depends if you want to ice your muffin cakes as gifts. If you're planning to use rolled fondant, it's going to be a bit of a challenge as it's harder to ice around its shape. I recommend baking your fruit cake in a 10" square tin (depending how big a piece you'd like to give as gifts, but I find these a really cute size as a gift). Poke a few holes with a skewer, douce some brandy, and let the cake cool completely. Cut into four equal squares and ice with marzipan then royal icing or fondant. Decorate as you please. Hope this helps.

Posted by: OG | October 25, 2007 2:44 AM

I use my mother's batter receipe, but use all sorts of dried fruit, which is soaked in a pint of bourbon. I make 20 or so mini-bundt pan size cakes. My cohorts at work look forward to it every year.

I do prefer the natural dried fruits to the candied fruit.

Posted by: Deborah | October 25, 2007 11:00 AM

The fruit cake that you know in America is totally different from what the West Indians and some British consider fruit cake. The West Indian fruit cake is a delicacy. It is a must at weddings, parties and definitely at christmas. It pairs well with some ginger beer, mauby or a chilled glass of wine. It is made closely to the Australian recipe method above. However, the it is a creative art that takes time to really master. Check out the West Indian weddings. They serve the real fruit cake (black cake).

Posted by: Anonymous | October 25, 2007 11:23 AM

The fruit cake that you know in America is totally different from what the West Indians and some British consider fruit cake. The West Indian fruit cake is a delicacy. It is a must at weddings, parties and definitely at christmas. It pairs well with some ginger beer, mauby or a chilled glass of wine. It is made closely to the Australian recipe method above. However, the it is a creative art that takes time to really master. Check out the West Indian weddings. They serve the real fruit cake (black cake).

Posted by: Kay | October 25, 2007 11:24 AM

I am making some fruit cake at christmas. My fruits were ground a year ago, steeped in Maneschewitz wine and refrigerated. I made cake with some at christmas last year and I will finish the rest this year. I do not use pineapple. Too tart. I use these dried fruits,(apples, figs, dates, currants, raisins, prunes, marashino/glazed cherries, 1 tablespoon of candied lemon and orange rind). I do not use water or milk. I only use eggs for liquid. No boiling of fruit or so. Will post a recipe for you sometime soon.

Posted by: Kay | October 25, 2007 11:31 AM

The method of boiling the fruit with water, butter and sugar originated in Ireland (so I was told), although I first tasted it in the Carribean. This is one of my favourite cakes,with a wonderful light, rich flavour, but I have never tried to keep it - maybe you do need alcohol as a preservative.

This is my recipe, adapted from Josceline Dimbleby, Favourite Foods.

6oz butter
6oz soft brown sugar
1/2 pint water
4oz prunes (pitted)
8oz raisins and sultanas
4oz walnuts or pecans

Simmer all those ingredients together for about ten minutes, allow to cool.

Sift together:
8oz all-purpose flour (I use whole)
1 teaspoon Bi-carbonate of soda
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon ground coriander
(vary spices to suit yourself)

2 large eggs, beaten, and the fruit mixture.

Line the cake tin and grease it, pour in mixture and bake at 350 degrees for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Let it cool slightly before turning out onto a rack.

Posted by: Tricia | October 25, 2007 4:47 PM

I don't understand the concept of boiled fruitcake. How does that work? DO you not bake the cake? Sorry to sound so ignorant of boiled fruitcake.

Posted by: Julie | October 30, 2007 2:35 PM

I'm going out of town for 3 weeks and while my dried fruit has been soaking for a few weeks I'm ready to start baking. I want to bake my fruitcake before I go out of town so that I have another month when I get back before Christmas. Could you please share your favorite fruitcake recipes with me, as I don't know where to begin with the batter.

Posted by: Karen | October 30, 2007 2:36 PM

hi karen ,i have just finished baking my xmas cake and 2 more for a wedding in the new year the batter i use with my recipe(for a 10"round/9"square) is 350g butter creamed with 350g of soft brown sugar (colour of sugar depends on how dark you want the cake)than adding 6 medium size eggs one at a time adding a spoonful of plain flour (from 400g total)after each egg then folding in the rest . when sifting the flour add 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon & 1 teaspoon of mixed spice , you can also add 1 Tablespoon of black treacle after you have folded in the rest of the flour to make it a little darker and richer .i always use this recipe and everyone seems to like it
hope this helps

Posted by: lisa in uk | November 10, 2007 4:03 PM

hi again
sorry forgot to add fruit amounts to that recipe(too busy looking at batter part!)i use a total weight of 1.475 kg(3lb 3 oz) soaked fruit ,350 g of that being glace cherries the rest made up of currants , raisins sultanas or whatever you like ,with the grated rind of 1 lemon
happy cooking

Posted by: lisa | November 10, 2007 4:09 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company