Let Them Eat Fruitcake
Why we should embrace the boozy, dense, candied cake.
The issue of age becomes a point of pride for some. Knowing customers of monastery fruitcakes ask for "dark cakes" rather than "light" ones that have been made later in the year. My friend from Curaçao once told me that his family's black cakes were aged three months—at minimum—before they were served. Gourmet fruitcake-maker Robert Lambert, who includes the candied zest of exotic citrus like Buddha's hand citron and Ranjpur lime in his creations, told me that he recently tried one of his cakes that had been cellared for six years. He'd like to produce more vintage cakes, but he's always running out of inventory.
Is confectionary ageism what makes fruitcake so reviled? Are we too obsessed with freshness to understand the point of a really old baked good? Perhaps, but I think the greater problem with fruitcake, for me and many other people, is the fruit itself. There's nothing wrong with candied fruit per se, but it is rarely deployed in American fruitcake. The stuff you get at the grocery store is colored like a Las Vegas Christmas revue from candy-apple red pineapples to lurid green cherries.
Still, I was sure that if the ingredients in a fruitcake were handled with care, my results could be inspired. So I set out to seek my own fruitcake nirvana. I started with the fruit: I hoped the candied fruit I ordered from King Arthur Flour, a high-end baking catalog, might be better than the stuff in the grocery store, but when it arrived, all that European mixed peel and orange zest possessed the faint taste of house cleaner. Since I don't live around the corner from a fine confectioner, like, say, this famous one in Provence, it became clear that any citrus peel I would put in my own fruitcakes would have to be candied by me. Inspired by Mr. Lambert, I candied both navel orange peel and Buddha's hand citron, first blanching the peels in a few changes of boiling water and then simmering them in a sugar syrup (you'll get the gist here). Then, at last, I set to work making my cakes.
I made a pain d'epices and loved it but knew its anise-honey flavor didn't say Christmas in the American sense, so I sought out recipes for both light and dark cakes in that most American cookbook The Fannie Farmer Cookbook(Marion Cunningham's revision of the classic volume), substituting alcohol-soaked dried fruits for some of the candied fruits. (Cunningham's light fruit cake is not online, but a similar recipe, which I haven't tested, is here.) After they were done, I wrapped them in boozy cheesecloth and painted them with more alcohol every other day or so.
I found real fun in taking liberties with traditional fruitcake recipes, particularly in curating the cake's contents: To the dark fruitcake, I added dark fruit—prunes, dried sour cherries, cranberries, mission figs, dates, and apricots, and chose Armagnac to up the proof. I made the light fruitcake rummy and stuck with lighter fruits: apricots, golden raisins, kalamata figs, coconut, and dates. For a little holiday jollity, I even allowed myself three candied cherries per cake. (Note for next year: Try candying cherries during the July season, per David Leibovitz.)
My litter of five fruitcakes is still aging in cheese cloth and tinfoil (minus the less-inebriated pain d'epices, which was consumed at the tender age of four days old), and based on the little slivers I've taken off their ends, they are bewitching and getting more redolent each day. They are heavy, indeed, but that is OK: Fruitcake looks best in thinly sliced cross sections. Studded with fruit and nuts, it reminds me of salami's piebald patterns of fat and peppercorns. Like salami, too, I think fruitcake tastes swell alongside slivers of nice old cheddar or parmesan. In, fact, I'd argue that fruitcake, with its aging and its complexity, is essentially the charcuterie of the baking world. If that's not a way to get some traction among today's foodies, I don't know what is.
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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.