Dear America: It’s time we gave fruitcake another chance
Jokes about fruitcake have been circulating for about as long as people have been making fruitcake. Give or take, that’s more than 500 years.
(Cue the joke about passing around a 500-year-old fruitcake.)
Or maybe it just feels that way, because I am so. Over. Fruitcake jokes.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t celebrate Christmas that I’m not burdened with the baggage of bad fruitcake. No one is putting out token loaves in my family. But any baked good can turn out poorly, so why do we pile on fruitcake year after year?
I get it. For the purposes of this story, I bought and then tasted one of those ubiquitous, veritable bricks with the garishly colored fruit that you can pick up at almost any supermarket. Tasted but did not consume, that is. It was so awful, so dense, so greasy, so utterly devoid of flavors other than wax and plastic, that I did a literal spit-take. I really wanted to pull this contrarian thread and find something redeeming about it, but alas. No such luck.
Time to rebrand
Fruitcakes like that give the genre a bad name. Speaking of name, maybe it’s time to rebrand. Like how prunes became dried plums. It’s all about the marketing, people. I think we can manage that for fruitcakes.
For those fortified with spirits at least, my esteemed Post colleague Kara Elder suggests “boozy cake.” Even something along the lines of “apricot and crystallized ginger cake” would suffice and sound more enticing for those who have negative associations with the word “fruitcake.” I can even get behind the festive-sounding Christmas Cake, a recipe we published several years ago from Richard Burr, a finalist on “The Great British Baking Show.”
Speaking of Brits, they know what’s what when it comes to fruitcake. In fact, for hundreds of years it has been the royal wedding cake of choice. While Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) went for an American-style lemon and elderflower centerpiece at their nuptials this year, Prince William and Kate Middleton (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) in 2011 opted for a 220-pound, eight-tier fruitcake. Even former “Great British Baking Show” judge Mary Berry (the Duchess of Sugar) had fruitcake at her wedding, with marzipan and royal icing, natch.
Yes, it is true that fruitcakes have been historically popular because, especially if fortified, they can last a long time, as food historian Annie Gray told me when I was going down the royal wedding cake rabbit hole. (A long shelf life meant royals could send pieces out to people not at the wedding.) They were also worthy celebration pieces because fruit, sugar and spices were so expensive. Fruitcakes were status symbols. Imagine that!
Even if you absolutely can’t get behind that cake style of fruitcake, it’s worth expanding your consideration to other global traditions. Take Germany’s stollen for example, which adds almonds or marzipan to the mix and is covered in a combination of butter and confectioners sugar. Or how about Italian panettone? It’s a yeasted bread (read: light and airy) made with an enriched dough that is studded with dried fruit. In Portugal, bolo rei is a ring bread that includes fruit both inside and on top.
Some to try
Surely, with all that variety and some excellent recipes out there, you can find something to like. Maybe the new fruitcake joke at your holiday gathering will be about how fast it disappears.
Here are some tried and true recipes from The Washington Post recipe archive ( washingtonpost.com/recipes ):
• White Fruitcake. A low, slow bake keeps the color pale and the texture tender and moist. You’ll love how chock-full these citrusy-flavored loaves are of apricots, crystallized ginger and raisins. The Voraciously taste testers unanimously approved. They went back for seconds, thirds … you get the idea.
• Arkansas Fig Fruitcake. The secret behind this cake is a homemade fig puree. Apples, raisins and nuts fill out the mix.
• Guinness Fruit Cake. Twist! It’s made with beer, plus currants, raisins and citrus peel. If you don’t have self-rising flour, add
1 1 ⁄ 2 teaspoons baking powder and
¼ teaspoon salt per cup of all-
• Red Truck Bakery’s Almond Stollen. Sure, it’s a bit of a project, but invite a few friends and family over to help and then savor a result that’s truly worth the effort.
• Brandied Cherry Chocolate Cake. Chocolate and boozy cherries take this way outside of the traditional fruitcake realm.
• Caramel Sticky Toffee Cake. Even without the toffee sauce frosting and caramel decoration, this cake from Tamal Ray, another “Great British Baking Show” finalist, is still a showstopper.
Becky Krystal is a writer for The Washington Post