People love to make fun of this seemingly indestructible Christmas classic, but what is fruitcake? All we know is that it’s good!
“There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep passing it around.” – Johnny Carson
What Is Fruitcake?
We’ve all heard the jokes referring to fruitcake’s immense density, or its extreme shelf life. Its detractors would have you believe that it’s as heavy as a doorstop and made to be passed down through the generations, getting an annual christening of liquor every Christmas before being put away for the following year. And to be honest, there’s more than a little truth to it.
Fruitcake—that dense amalgam of fruits, nuts and just enough rich cake to hold them together—is one of the heaviest baked goods out there. It’s also one of the few baked goods that can benefit from aging…provided it’s done right. But at the end of the day (or, more accurately, the end of the year), enough people love—and eat—fruitcake to make it a $100 million per year business. And its legendary lasting power is not limited to the cake itself: fruitcake has existed in one form or another since Roman times.
The Origin of Fruitcake: The Original Energy Bar
To sustain their troops in battle, the ancient Romans concocted a sort of energy bar consisting of pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, raisins and barley. It was packed with calories in the form of healthful carbs and beneficial fats, and lasted long enough to fortify a soldier through a long, exhausting campaign. A similar form of fruitcake was used by Christian armies during the Crusades.
Dried fruits became more readily available to western Europeans during the Middle Ages, and variations on the fruitcake emerged: Italy’s panforte and panettone, Germany’s stollen, and Britain’s plum pudding.
The British form started as “plum porridge”; more liquid than solid, it was not sweet at all. During Shakespearean times it contained meat, wine, sherry, fruit juices, sugar and various dried fruits. Over the years, the recipe changed to eliminate the meat, add more fruit, and bake it into what became known as “plum pudding” (more a cake than what Americans would know as a pudding). It was this form that became famous in the Christmas carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” in which the carolers implore, “Now bring us some figgy pudding.” It was the practice of English nobles during the Dickens era to feed the poor carolers with a slice of this pudding, which is probably how fruitcake came to be so intertwined with Christmas.
The tradition was brought to America by the colonists in the years before the Revolution, and by the late 1800s the fruitcake was gifted in decorated tins. Today The Swiss Colony (America’s largest hand-decorating baker) produces more than 66,000 fruitcakes—nearly 110,000 pounds—per year in its Monroe, Wisconsin, bakery and ships them nationwide in its own festive tins.
How Fruitcake Is Made
The Swiss Colony has been baking fruitcakes since the early 1960s, and has continually perfected the recipe over the years to deliver the right blend of density, moistness, and flavor. The current formulation contains a whopping 70% dried fruit and nuts: papayas, raisins, pineapple, cherries, pecans and English walnuts. These ingredients are bound together by a buttery-rich batter and baked to form a rich, dark cake. A pattern of more dried fruits and fancy-grade pecan halves are beautifully hand-arranged on top. The top is then hand-brushed with a sugar glaze, cooked in small batches in copper kettles, to set the design and add the final glistening touch.
The Care and Feeding of Fruitcake
Wait…what? Is this a cake or a pet? Well, to many people the holiday fruitcake is a living tradition that requires tending, and they order it appropriately in advance to account for the aging process.
It may seem strange to age a food product, except for wine and cheese…and, under carefully controlled conditions, beef. OK, so maybe aging food isn’t all that bizarre. But baked goods? In this case, yes. All that fruit contains compounds called tannins which, in addition to being good for you, have a slight natural bitterness that softens with age. In fact, this is why red wines are aged: the tannins found in the grape skins mellow over time. At any rate, most fruitcake fanatics wouldn’t dream of serving a fruitcake until it’s aged at least a month.
Now, don’t feel as though you need to age your fruitcake. Any fruitcake you buy is perfectly delicious to eat right out of the package, and has been quietly ripening in refrigeration for a while before shipping (sealed, of course, to stay moist). But many folks like to moisten it further with one element most manufacturers leave out: alcohol.
Brandy, whiskey or rum has been a time-honored ingredient of traditional fruitcakes for centuries. Out of respect for personal preferences and sensitivities, The Swiss Colony leaves out this step, adding only a bit of rum flavoring for authenticity. But anyone buying a fruitcake can “feed” it easily by following this simple process. You can use brandy as suggested, or substitute rum or whiskey.
People who follow this practice say a properly done fruitcake will last months or even years in a cool, dry place, but we recommend enjoying the fruits of your labors during the holidays and buying a new one next year!