When hosting a holiday party, perhaps the best part of having everyone over is the collection of unique treats brought by all your friends and family. However, among the bottles of funky red wine, triple-cream cheese, and slice-and-bake cookies, there’s always one outlier in the group: A fruitcake. Fruitcake is heavy, both physically (one can weigh the same as a newborn), and on the belly (there’s a whole lot of candied fruit in there, plus it’s soaked in liquor). Fruitcake is hard to bite into. Fruitcake can stay edible for years. Seriously, what is fruitcake?
When taken at face value, fruitcake doesn’t seem that bad. A cake made of dried fruit, nuts, and perhaps a bit of liqueur actually sounds quite good. However, if you’ve ever gnawed at a piece of fruitcake at a holiday shindig, you know there’s a lot more to this cake than its description.
The origin of the fruitcake can be traced to 16th Century Europe, where it was discovered that when soaked in large quantities of sugar, fruit could be preserved. With so much candied fruit hanging around, people crammed their sugared produce with a few other ingredients into molds to make cakes of sort. Known originally as “plum cake” in England, the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets describes early fruitcake as an incredibly time-consuming bake—the egg whites had to be whipped stiff with a fork, the butter had to be washed, the fruit hand-candied. The cakes then baked in wood-fired ovens that had been previously heated and emptied.
The advent of cast-iron ovens (and controllable temperatures) in the 1800s led to an increase in written recipes for fruitcake, some of which called for baking soda in addition to beaten eggs to lighten the cake. Some British recipes suggested steaming the fruit for additional moisture, while Australian recipes attempted to achieve the same with crushed pineapple.
The addition of nuts in fruitcake recipes is likely thanks to the American South. One of the country’s leading fruitcake distributors, Collin Street Bakery of Corsicana, Texas, documented their pecan-heavy fruitcake recipe in 1896. Robert Sietsma writes in A Short History of Fruitcake that the Southern bakeries’ inclusion of the ingredient was likely due to the region’s “surplus of cheap nuts.” Like fruit, nuts were less likely to spoil after being coated in sugar, and therefore made a welcome flavor addition to fruitcakes. Although popular all over the world, American fruitcakes hold a certain prize in their lack of ediblity. Because they’re expected to stay fresh during their journey through the mail, the cakes are typically soaked in liqueurs or brandy, then covered in powdered sugar. Since they're permeated with liquor and sugar, the confection can actually remain edible for years. In fact, Jay Leno once ate a piece of 125-year-old fruitcake live on The Tonight Show. When asked how the cake tasted, Leno joked that “it needs more time.”
Collin Street Bakery does in fact still sell mail-order fruitcakes. Their regular-sized “DeLuxe® Fruitcake” (which weighs 1⅞ pounds and costs $30) contains plenty of fruit, among them cherries, pineapple, raisins, papaya, and orange peel. The cake also of course contains pecans, as well as liquid and hydrogenated soybean oil, eggs, and flour. It’s sweetened with corn syrup, sugar, invert sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids. Finally, the cake contains natural and artificial flavor, sulphur dioxide (a preservative for dried fruit). It’s colored with red #40, blue #1, and turmeric. The bakery says they like to keep their cakes in the refrigerator, but maintain that the fruitcake will keep at room temperature for 60-90 days.
The FAQ section of the website also includes this gem on how to “doctor” a fruitcake: “Simply soak a clean white cheese cloth in the spirit of your choice then… place the cloth completely around the cake… Place the "Doctored" DeLuxe® back in the tin and refrigerate.” They go on to say to re-soak the cake after 5 days, and to repeat the process every 5 days until the cake tastes “just right.”
While that ingredient list and instruction may be enough to put you off ever trying the cake, this is not to say there is so such thing as a good fruitcake. If instead of attempting to make a cake of justs candied fruit and nuts bound together with egg, you back up and begin with a rum cake recipe, then add the extras for crunch and chewiness, you may actually have something tasty on your hands. That one, however, shouldn’t be kept at room temperature for more than a week.