The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world,
and people keep sending it to each other.
~~ Johnny Carson ~~
It’s like liver: either you love it or you hate it.
Fruitcake, that’s what.
Just to prove a point, a few years back some enterprising journalists conducted a survey on the most hated Christmas gifts. Guess what people most hated to receive as gifts?
Described variously as full of “gooky” candied fruit or heavy enough to break bones when dropped on a foot or glued together only by sheer perversity, fruitcake is definitely not number one on the taste charts these days.
And yet people still regard fruitcakes to be symbols of Christmas. Why, when most people sheepishly admit to detesting them?
Tradition. Fruitcakes are Tradition.
Because most of America’s Christmas traditions stem from early English times, with many Celtic and Saxon habits mixed in, fruitcake simply symbolizes another one of many rock-bound traditions associated with the celebration of Christmas. The Romans bear some responsibility for this state of affairs, for they made a cake called “satura,” rich with honey nuts, and fruits. But the Tuscans in Italy, also culpable, created a fruitcake-like tradition with panforte with roots dating back to the 13th century. Panettone, another fruitcake-like concoction, bears little resemblance to the brick-like English version of fruitcake. German stollen provides yet another variation on fruitcake. And let’s not forget Jamaican Black Cake, soaked in rum with ground up fruit, a cousin of English Plum Pudding.
Imagine the scenario in jolly old England: cakes became very special, because of the scarce and costly ingredients required by the traditional recipes. Nuts, dried sugary fruits from the Mediterranean, white flour, and liqueur cost staggering amounts of money. Making a gift of fruitcake symbolized a sacrifice of both time and money and food.
Drying the fruits of summer and early fall, then preserving them in sugar syrup, consumed copious amounts of time and energy. Wood needed to be cut for the wood-burning stove and the fire moderated or the cakes would burn. Producing the precious liqueur required another time-consuming process. And since people hoarded most of these liqueurs for medicinal purposes, it was yet another hardship to pour these nectars over the cake as a preservative. Yet the tradition persevered and persisted.
Topped with a almond-based marzipan shell and then frosted with hard white icing, the English Christmas cake thus joined the repertoire of Christmas traditions. And earned the enduring hatred of many discriminating eaters.
Unfortunately for fruitcake haters, the darn things are practically indestructible as long as they receive a bimonthly brandy bath. The Joy of Cooking states that with proper storage, cakes can last 25 years after baking. Russell Baker, syndicated columnist, joked once about inheriting a fruitcake and said that “While an eon, as someone has observed, may be two people and a ham, a fruitcake is forever.”
As costly as the fruitcake tradition may be, and as disliked, there is still room for “forever fruitcake” in your gift-giving schemes. For an alternative (and tastier) treat, try a Southern bourbon pecan cake. Raisins stand in as the only dried fruit called for in this recipe. Traditionally a butter-rich cake served as a foundation for fruitcakes, but the following recipe for “Southern Bourbon Pecan Cake” boasts less butter and fewer eggs. Less rich means less expensive. Ease of preparation ratchets this cake up another notch on the “yum” scale. This easily-made cake is perfect for gifts or for a quick snack on Christmas afternoon.
By the way, fruitcake lovers will be nutty as a fruitcake about this cake, too.
SOUTHERN BOURBON PECAN CAKE
16 oz. shelled pecans, finely chopped (almost ground)
8 oz. dark raisins
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. flour
1 stick unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
1 cup + 2 T. sugar
3 egg jumbo egg yolks
2 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 c. bourbon, preferably Kentucky
3 jumbo egg whites, beaten to peaks
Powdered sugar for decoration
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt pan. Add the grated nutmeg to the bourbon and set aside. Mix the pecans, raisins, and 1/2 cup of the flour together in a large bowl. Set aside.
Mix the remaining 1 cup of flour with the baking powder and 1/4 t. of salt. Set aside.
Cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the yolks, one by one, and mix well after each addition. Add the bourbon to this mixture alternatively with the flour. Mix well after each addition.
Fold in the nut mixture and blend in well. Fold in the egg whites and scrape batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top of the batter and let batter set for 5 minutes before baking. This helps the batter to settle.
Bake for about 1 hour. Check to see if cake is done by using a cake tester or long wooden skewer. Some crumbs should adhere to the skewer or cake will be too dry. Store cake for several days in an air-tight container, tightly wrapped in foil. To serve, sprinkle cake with powdered sugar and cut cake with serrated bread knife. Or serve cake with a vanilla custard sauce.
NOTE: Cake is better if it is soaked for at least one week in bourbon. Before storing, poke several holes in the cake with a wooden skewer and glaze cake with 1/2 cup of warm bourbon, drop by drop. Soak two linen towels in bourbon, put cake inside towels and wrap cake well with the towels. Cover cake with foil and store in an air-tight container. Every other day for a week, glaze cake with 1/4 cup bourbon as described above. The bourbon adds flavor and acts as a preservative.
VANILLA CUSTARD SAUCE
Makes about 2 cups
2 cups whole milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 t. pure vanilla extract
Scald the milk over medium heat. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl with the sugar until thick and light yellow in color.
Slowly add the hot milk to the egg mixture, beating constantly. Pour the mixture back into the pan and heat over medium-low heat until sauce is slightly thickened. Remove sauce from the heat and pour into a cool glass bowl. Cool completely and then add vanilla. Chill sauce, covered, until serving time.
BOOKS ABOUT FRUITCAKE:
Fruitcake, by Ursula Evans (2015)
Fruitcake: Memoirs of Truman Capote and Sook, by Marie Rudisill (2000)
*The slang term, “nutty as a fruitcake,” dates to about 1935.
© 2016 C. Bertelsen