Fruitcake ~ A Beloved Christmas Dessert
I’ve never been a fan of fruitcake, however, that is due to the nuts rather than any of the usual reasons people hate this classic holiday treat. I am not technically allergic to nuts, but as far as I am concerned, I might as well be since the teeniest sliver of a nut inside of something else, or by itself, will make me retch. The only nuts I can tolerate are peanuts and cashews. Needless to say, I avoid any cakes or cookies with nuts in them, and on those rare occasions when I just can’t pass up the nut-infested brownie or chocolate chip cookie, I am one of those weirdos who picks all the nuts out. Because of this, eating a slice of fruitcake is a chore and a mess! I have given it a try a couple of times, mainly because I wanted to find out for myself if it was as awful as reputed to be. To my surprise, I found fruitcake to be quite tasty. Maybe this year I’ll cook one without nuts, even if that is practically blasphemous!
Love fruitcake or not, one cannot deny the importance it has to Christmas. Exactly why is that? I was curious so decided to do some research. As it turns out, fruitcake has a long and illustrious history that transcends any connection to Christmas.
The oldest references and recipes for fruitcake date back to Roman times. The Romans made cakes richly laden with figs, pomegranate seeds, nuts, raisins, dates, and other native fruits mixed with honeyed wine and barley mash. Shaped into cakes they called “satura,” these fruitcakes lasted for a long time so worked well for travelers and as a hardy food for soldiers. Basically a Roman soldier energy bar!
Expansion and trade into the west led to the introduction of fruitcake to Europe. By the 1400s dried fruits and exotic spices from the Mediterranean and Far East were added to recipes. In England the adding of bits of meat was also a standard, although apparently this tendency did not last long. Meats became more common in mincemeat pies whereas sweet fruitcakes became the traditional “plum pudding” so closely tied to Christmas in England.
Over the centuries recipes varied widely between countries and cultures. Local traditions, native fruits, favored liqueurs, and availability and cost of ingredients created regional spins on the basic fruitcake. In some places and at certain periods of time, the difficulty and high cost in obtaining ingredients, especially importing sugar, meant fruitcake was reserved for the very wealthy and special occasions. These included weddings and ceremonial observances, perhaps one origin of it being associated with Christmas.
Sugar was discovered early on (way back to ancient Romans and Egyptians, in fact) to be an excellent preservative for fruits. Easier access to sugar from the American Colonies, and improved refinement techniques for sugar and flour meant that dried fruit and fruitcake was readily available to everyone. Soaking fruit in sugar essentially “dried” the fruit and when added to an alcohol imbued batter, the dense and rich cake was a luxury dessert that kept for a long time. The combination of being a well-preserved, nourishing (and delicious) treat and the inclusion of late harvest nuts made the fruitcake into an end-of-the-year creation. Again, another possible origin for fruitcake’s close association with Christmas.
By the 1700s, fruitcake in England, and most of Europe and Colonial America, had settled into a generally standardized recipe. With some variations, of course, but the inclusion of nuts and alcohol were absolute musts. Fruitcake love was so intense that the “sinfully rich” dessert was outlawed for a while during the 18th century. Thankfully this banning did not last long, fruitcake roaring back into favor in England and it has remained a beloved dessert ever since.
FUN FRUITCAKE TRIVIA
In the 1800s fruitcake was a traditional wedding cake. A custom was for the unmarried wedding guests to place a slice of the wedding fruitcake under their pillow, the belief that they would dream of the person destined to marry them.
The overriding question of how fruitcake came to be associated with Christmas remains a mystery.
The speculative comments I made in the paragraphs above are exactly that: speculative. In the 1956 short story “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, a nameless sixty-something woman looks out her kitchen window and exclaims, “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather.” She and her dearest friend, her 7-year-old, and live-in cousin Buddy begin amassing supplies for a seasonal four-day baking spree. The scene is fascinating in that it implies fruitcake had evolved into a Christmas dessert, and one that was anticipated with delight.
While it still remains a specific Christmas treat to this day, fruitcake has fallen largely out of favor in America. In part we can thank Johnny Carson’s influence (see below), but blame also goes to the mass-production of bad quality fruitcake. As a sturdy, naturally preserved dessert, fruitcake was one of the first edible items to enter the mailing market in the early 20th century. Ordering and sending food via parcel post was a novel way to give a gift to far away friends, fruitcake sent in such large numbers, but not as tasty as when homemade so the negative rap grew: fruitcake = bad cake.
FUN FRUITCAKE TRIVIA
Johnny Carson is credited with making fruitcake into a joke. Fruitcake was wildly popular for centuries and never the butt of a joke until an episode of The Tonight Show in 1960 when Carson said, “The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Carson carried on the tradition of making fun of fruitcake every single year around the holidays, until it became embedded into the American psyche!
FRUITCAKE AROUND THE WORLD
Germany stollen is loaf-shaped and has powdered sugar on top.
Italy panforte or pannetonne are chewy and strongly spiced.Poland keks swiateczny is a very light fruitcake.
Portugal bolo rei and bollo de higo has one fava bean inside.
Vietnam banh bo mut made for the Lunar New Year.
Ireland barmbrack is a sweetbread eaten at Halloween and contains inserted coins or rings.
Jamaica has a rum-soaked black cake.
Chile pan de pascua.
Philippines crema de fruta is a sponge cake with custard.