It is one of the most misunderstood foods of the holiday season and the butt of all the jokes, yet it still manages to keep a firm hold on the list of most often gifted holiday treats. Yes, it’s fruitcake. That delightful cake filled with dried fruits and nuts, and often soaked in liquor has haunted the holiday season for more than 100 years.
Fruitcake has morphed quite a bit over the years, but it dates all the way back to ancient Rome, when a variety of seeds, nuts and raisins were mixed into a barley mash. Dried fruits were added, and the fruitcake was born. It was the only way fruits and nuts could be preserved long before the days of refrigeration. As Europe grew, so too did the fruitcake. The recipes varied regionally staking their claims all over Europe.
Perhaps one of the best variations of the holiday treat is Germany’s stollen, a similar cake with more milk and butter. Stollen dates back to 15th-century Germany when church regulations did not allow the use of butter and milk due to observance of the holiday fast. The town of Saxony then petitioned Pope Innocent VIII for the use of milk and butter, which he eventually granted.
Chef Keegan Gerhard, most notably of Food Network Challenge and one of both Chocolatier and Pastry Art & Design magazines’ top 10 pastry chefs of 2002 and 2004, grew up in Germany and is greatly familiar with the Stollen traditions.
“Since the town got to use milk and butter and no one else was able to, they had the best stollen, and of course the whole town became known for their recipe,” Gerhard said, “I grew up in Germany, so we didn’t have American fruitcake. We had stollen, and I always loved stollen and it has the same kind of tradition (as fruitcake).
“I see the obvious humor in that you’d rather give it away than eat it, but really I think it’s just history and tradition. I think anyone knows that if you made a fruitcake, it took some time and some effort and some care. You didn’t go to the grocery store and buy a cupcake mix and bring that over. If you went to the trouble to make it and present it properly and deliver it. That says time and effort and energy, and that really means something.”
Gerhard also recalls his own mother’s favorite quote about fruitcake.
“My mother blames (fruitcake) on Johnny Carson. He used to make jokes about it, and once he said that there was only one fruitcake ever made and it just kept getting passed around.”
Gerhard shared another great quote about fruitcake from comedian Dave Barry.
“I have long believed that nobody actually makes fruitcakes. I believe that all fruitcakes were formed thousands of years ago by some kind of horrible natural catastrophe involving (1) fruit, (2) cake and (3) a radioactive meteorite.”
But not all fruitcakes are created equal. Gerhard said high-quality ingredients can still result in a delicious fruitcake and even shared his own mother’s delicious fruitcake recipe.
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Michelle Gerhard’s Fruitcake
- 1 cup red candied cherries
- 1 cup green candied cherries
- 1 cup red candied pineapple
- 1 cup green candied pineapple
- 2 cups mixed candied fruit
- 4 cups pecans, chopped
- 4 cups flour
- 1 pound butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 6 large eggs
- 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 cup Grand Marnier
- 1/2 cup bourbon or rum, plus additional for “soaking”
- Additional fruit, nuts and light corn syrup to decorate, if desired
Line a 10-inch tube pan with aluminum foil or greased wax paper, smoothing out the wrinkles. Reserve 10 green cherries and 10 red cherries for garnish. Cut each remaining cherry in half. In a large bowl place the cherries, pineapple, mixed fruit and pecans. Cover the mixture with Grand Marnier and let stand overnight to macerate.
The next day, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Stir two cups of flour into the mixture until the fruit and nuts are evenly coated. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift the remaining two cups of flour with salt and spices. Add this to butter mixture alternately with bourbon or rum, mixing until combined. Stir the batter into the fruit and nut mixture until combined well. Spoon the batter into prepared pan. Pack the batter down evenly to eliminate air pockets. Bake the cake for 2.5 hours or until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack.
Remove the cake from the pan and peel off foil or waxed paper. Cool the cake completely on wire rack. Wrap the fruitcake in a cheesecloth that has been soaked in bourbon or rum. Store in an airtight container, continuing to moisten with rum or bourbon periodically, if desired.
For more holiday food ideas, including gifts check out YourHolidayHints.com
Deborah Flomberg is a theater professional, freelance writer and Denver native. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.