In the mixed-faith home of my childhood, the Trappist fruitcake we received annually from a faraway relative was a particularly uncool symbol of our demi-goyishness. It would sit in the back of the fridge for months, opened only on dares by tipsy teenagers at unsanctioned house parties. The fruitcake—a loose term for a usually dense cake that is supersaturated with fruits (candied and dried) and nuts—is, of course, the sad punch line of the dessert world. It's a doorstop, a candied-fruit clown, a white elephant to be re-gifted by countless Secret Santas. And yet fruitcakes persist, as sure a sign of Yuletide as stockings by the fire. The crazy thing is that these days, I actually like them, and I feel strongly that they're ripe for gentle reinvention. In an age where every comfort food—from macaroni and cheese to fried apple pies—has been re-imagined by hipster chefs, it might be time for them to set their sights on fruitcake.
Fruitcakes are a relic from a much older form of cooking: Their prominent spicing is virtually medieval, their booziness speaks of preservation from a time before refrigerators or hydrogenated shortenings or BHT. Before the 20th century, most celebration cakes, like wedding cakes, were fruitcakes. And indeed, I find that there's something sweetly old-fashioned, even talismanic, about a dish that tries to jam so many treats into so little acreage.
Fruitcake is coveted, of course, for being an anachronism. It is a symbol of a pre-mass-market Christmas and, ideally, a product of collective family labor, as described by Edna Lewis, chronicler of all things good and Southern: "Late September was a fine time to make the Christmas fruitcake. … The family was around and friends were dropping in—chopping fruit, grinding spices, and sampling homemade wine, trying to decide which one was best for the cake, and sipping a bit of whisky as well. Preparing the cake became a festive occasion, and almost as exciting as Christmas itself." Like preparing the Thanksgiving roast, the Christmas fruitcake is a sacrificial effort—labor intensive, long in the making, and full of costly ingredients that are expensive if you botch it up.
But unlike the Thanksgiving roast, fruitcake isn't made the day of the feast. It is made in advance—either days or months, depending on your traditions. And many cultures have their traditions: the brioche-y Italian pannetone; German stollen that's often inlaid with a marzipan log; steamy British Christmas puddings served alight with brandy; candylike Tuscan panforte; or the extra dark, extra alcoholic "black cakes" of the Caribbean. My first adult realization that I might like fruitcake was a slice of pain d'epices, the French honey and rye cake that resembles gingerbread studded with a mosaic of dried fruits and nuts. I loved its unrelenting darkness.
That pain d'epices is what inspired fruitcake blogger Isabelle of Mondo Fruitcake would call a "gateway" fruitcake. That is, it is an introduction of sorts to fruitcake, being nearly devoid of the candied fruit that is the prominent acquired taste of American fruitcakes. (And indeed in her terms, I am still a rank amateur, because I prefer such entry-level cakes to the harder-core American fruitcakes that lean heavily on glacéed cherries and pineapple and citron.) There are monastery fruitcakes (like the one my family used to receive), usually made by Trappist brothers, which are notable for their strong alcoholic qualities and a dense, cellared moistness. There are also what Isabelle calls "Southern" fruitcakes, which are extra heavy on the sugar, nuts, and the Technicolor fruit. They are typically liquor-free and lack that drunken-uncle aroma that I've come to expect from fruitcake. Certain Southern-style fruitcakes, like this one from Mary's of Puddin' Hill, have so little batter holding all the fruits and nuts together that they are more candylike than cakes at all.
Just as these fruitcakes vary greatly in taste and texture, they also vary in age. Thanks to the alcohol, and the preserved ingredients within it, fruitcake can keep for days, weeks, months, even years. Like aged wine and cheese, they develop over time, and as they mellow, it becomes harder to distinguish the fruit from its cakey matrix.