Embrace the fruitcake!

What to eat. What not to eat.
Dec. 16 2009 11:53 AM

Let Them Eat Fruitcake

Why we should embrace the boozy, dense, candied cake.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

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.

Advertisement

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.

Fruitcake. Click image to expand.
Fruitcake

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. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.