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.
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.
Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.