I know what you’re thinking. Fruitcake? Really? And yes, I am well aware of fruitcake’s reputation as the bane of the holidays. But fruitcake doesn’t have to be a joke. Yes, it is dense, but it should be sliced thinly — it’s really a confection, not a cake, and it’s impolite to go into “doorstop” territory. And yes, it does last a very long time, but that’s because it’s impregnated with alcohol, and don’t try to convince me that’s a bad thing. Plus, you really should at least taste it before you save it to be regifted next Christmas. And yes, it does contain candied fruit, but my recipe is a relatively restrained mix of candied orange peel, raisins and currants, with nary a scary green cherry in sight.
The simple fact of it is that you can’t have a properly Dickensian Christmas without fruitcake (although even Charles Dickens himself made fun of the thing). It’s called Christmas cake in England and is a tradition which dates back to the middle ages, when preserving fruit through candying, drying, and soaking in alcohol was necessary to get through the long dark winter months. Fruitcake reached its zenith of popularity in the Victorian era, and is still a ubiquitous Christmas treat in England today. As the butt of all jokes today, recipes abound for all sorts of nontraditional cakes that even “fruitcake haters will love”, but they fail to connect to the truth. A cake with fruit is not necessarily a Fruitcake. If it’s light and fluffy, it’s not a Fruitcake. If there’s no alcohol involved, it may be delicious, but it’s not a Fruitcake. Properly made Fruitcake has a haunting complexity and a richness of flavor that’s perfect for the holiday season. And if you don’t finish it, you can keep “feeding” it with brandy and snitching slices until next Christmas.
I’ve made many fruitcakes over the years (my grandmother shares my love of them, and it’s always an excellent gift to give to a fellow fruitcake lover), and the following, which is adapted from Delia Smith (as far as I can gather, Britain’s answer to Martha Stewart), is the best. It’s relatively simple (I’ve tried making fruitcake with dried figs and crystallized ginger and it’s really not an improvement) and absolutely classic. Make the fruitcake now, wrap in cheesecloth, keep pouring brandy over it (if you’re not a fan of brandy, you can use rum or whisky), and by Christmas Eve (or, you know, next Halloween) you’ll have a lovely traditional treat.
- 1 lb dried currants
- 8 oz. raisins
- 8 oz. golden raisins
- 8 oz. diced candied orange peel
- 3 T brandy (you can use rum, bourbon, or Irish whiskey in place of brandy) plus more for “feeding”
- 8 oz. butter
- 8 oz. brown sugar
- 4 eggs
- 8 oz. flour
- ½ tsp. salt
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp. allspice
- 2 oz. pecans, toasted and chopped
- 1 tsp. molasses
- grated zest 1 lemon
- grated zest 1 orange
- The night before you want to bake the cake, combine the raisins, currants and orange peel and pour the 3 T brandy over it. Toss with your hands, cover with a towel, and leave overnight. (If you skip this step, it’s not the end of the world. Just toss them before you add them to the cake).
- Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.
- Cream the butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy, then add the eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition. Add the flour, the spices and the salt and beat until just combined. Finally, fold in the fruit, the molasses the pecans and the zest with a wooden spoon.
- Line an 8 inch round springform pan with parchment paper (I cut out a circle for the bottom by tracing, then cut a strip to wrap around the edges) and pour in the batter. Place another circle of parchment paper with a hole cut in the middle (Delia says about the size of a 50p coin, which is roughly the size of a 50 cent coin, but I haven’t seen a 50 cent coin since I was a kid, so use some discretion. Bigger than a quarter) directly on top of the batter, then wrap the whole pan in a collar of brown paper (I cut about a 4 inch strip of paper from a grocery bag (I usually use my own bags, but sometimes you need the paper!) tied with kitchen twine.
- Bake in the low oven for 4 -4.5 hours, or until a skewer poked in the middle comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the pan, then poke with skewers and pour some brandy over the top. Soak cheesecloth in more brandy, and wrap the cake thoroughly. Store in a tin for a week or two, “feeding” every few days with more brandy. The character of the cake will change with aging, making it more and more confection like the longer it ages.
Click here for directions on icing your Christmas cake!