In Defense of Fruitcake

Kathryn Dillon

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"The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep sending it to each other." (Johnny Carson)I know, I know. I’ve heard all the jokes, and yet here I am, coming to you with a recipe for fruitcake, trying to make a case for why you should make it too.

Fruitcake, at my house, is usually the kickoff to the holiday baking season. It can be made early (the earlier, the better in fact!), plus, all that chopping? You want to be able to focus on it and not feel like you have to multi-task with three batches of cookies underway at the same time.

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about that nasty, chemical-tasting, almost-fluffy but somehow simultaneously dry abomination you find at the grocery store and featured in all the articles that tell you why fruitcake is awful. You know the kind I mean. It’s light-colored and ominously laden with red and green maraschino cherries.

Ew. That is not a fruitcake.

I bought one, once, at my husband’s request. And I will only say this — it takes a whole new level of intolerable to make my husband throw food away. And that store-bought fruitcake landed unceremoniously in the trash bin after his first bite.

This fruitcake is not at all like that. It is dense and may not be the most beautiful thing in the world but it’s deep and dark and spicy and delicious. It has a very low batter-to-fruit and nuts ratio (it took me a solid hour to chop everything).

Best of all, it reminds me of my dad.

Fruitcake as we know it dates back to the Middle Ages but gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the reason it came to be associated with Christmas is a mystery, but it could have something to do with the cost of dried fruit and nuts, which made it seem an indulgence.

The mass-produced, mail-order variety became available in the early 20th century, which may correspond with the point where fruitcake began to fall out of favor. But, as Smithsonian notes, “Some of the companies producing these things have been in business for decades, so this isn’t an entirely satisfactory answer. They must be doing something right, right?”

Fruitcake wasn’t part of our Christmas traditions when I was growing up. It’s a recipe my dad discovered after my sister and I had already moved out of our childhood home. He and my mom would tag team on the chopping and he’d serve it when we came home for Christmas. They baked it in small, disposable bread tins so they could give the mini loaves to friends.

Once people had tasted the fruitcake, they rarely declined.

I made it for the first time a few years ago, not long after my father died. I take great comfort in remembering people through food, and when I prepare fruitcake, I feel like he is with me every step of the way. He reminds me how he always grumbled about the chopping but assures me the end result will be worth it.

He’s right, of course.

Fruitcake

Yields about eleven mini loaves, approximately 5 x 3 x 2

Notes:
The original recipe makes 17 pounds! That was a bit much, even for my fruitcake-loving self. So, I’ve cut it in half, which is significantly more manageable. My version yields about eleven mini loaves, approximately 5 x 3 x 2. My husband usually decimates the first loaf we slice in a matter of minutes. You can bake the fruitcake in larger pans, but you’ll need to increase the baking time.

The fruits and nuts are flexible; if you can’t find one item (such as the currants my neighborhood grocer doesn’t carry) simply make up for the volume with more of the other ingredients.

I had never heard of Sucanet, a variety of whole cane sugar, before making this for the first time. I found it at the grocery store with the specialty sugars. If you need to substitute brown sugar, use about 1 1/8 cups packed, and add a tablespoon of water to your mixture.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups whole or slivered almonds, chopped
  • 1 3/4 cups chopped pecans
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup dried pineapple, chopped
  • 1 1/3 cups dried mangoes, peaches or pears, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups dried cherries, chopped
  • 1 1/3 cups dried apricots, chopped
  • 3 3/4 cups raisins
  • 1 1/4 cups date pieces
  • 1 3/4 cups currants
  • 1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
  • 1/2 jar seedless blackberry jam (I used Simply Fruit)
  • 2 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 1/3 cup brandy or apple juice, and more for drizzling over the top
  • 2 sticks butter, softened
  • 1/2 pound Sucanet (whole cane sugar)
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 3/4 to 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 275 F. Adjust oven racks so one is in the middle and one is on the lowest setting. Put a container of water on the lowest rack for moisture during baking.

Place the dried fruits in a large pot. If using brandy, drizzle a bit over the fruit and allow it to soak for a day or two.

Add the chopped nuts and spices. In a separate bowl, whisk the remaining brandy or apple juice with the jam. Add it to the pot and stir well to combine.

Beat the butter in a large mixing bowl. Add the Sucanat and molasses and beat for two minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing between additions.

Add the flour and salt (gradually) and mix to batter consistency. This is a fairly stiff dough. Add the batter to the fruit and nut mixture and stir until well-combined. Your arm will be yelling at you by this point, but persevere.

Spoon into mini loaf pans to about 3/4 full.

You can decorate the top with nuts and dried cherries before baking if you wish.

Bake for approximately 1 hour 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool on racks. You can turn the fruitcakes out of the pan and brush the bottoms with more brandy or juice, and then put them back in the pans and drizzle more liquid over the top if desired.

Wrap airtight, and they’ll last for weeks!

This recipe, with a few tweaks from me, came from The Farmacy, a natural and specialty food store in Athens, Ohio, at some point in the 1990s.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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