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.
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