Pity the fruitcake, too long the object of snide remarks and unkind jests. Its status as a traditional and coveted gift at Christmas has diminished over the years, unfairly hastened by the inedible concoctions of some commercial bakeries and a misguided adherence to the notion of culinary authenticity.
That’s why, last month, a few die-hard fruitcake addicts here at the Bangor Daily News (“My name is Meg, and I like fruitcake …”) decided to revive fruitcake’s distinguished place at the holiday table. On Nov. 26 we announced the first Bangor Daily News I Love Fruitcake Contest and invited readers to send us a sample of their favorite fruitcake along with the recipe.
Today, we announce the winners, selected by a distinguished panel of judges — two bona fide food experts and Khela Kupiec, an unsuspecting copy desk editor who admitted, aloud, to a fondness for the unpopular stuff.
After a grueling 45-minute taste test of the seven delectable entries, first-place winners were chosen in each of two categories — with alcohol and without.
Of the three samples made without any alcohol, Kenduskeag resident Isabelle Walsh’s festive and attractive loaf took top honors for its moist and tender crumb, its rich, spicy flavor, its use of traditional ingredients and its restrained decoration.
“Appearance is very important in evaluating the structure of the cake,” said judge Mary Giboleau, an accomplished cook and a former home economics teacher who lives in Old Town.
Orono resident Claire Bolduc’s apricot-studded, brandy-scented entry was judged the best of the four that contained alcohol.
“It doesn’t have the traditional fruitcake look to it, but it’s got a very nice texture,” observed judge Ann Marie Orr, a professional caterer.
The judges reviewed the noble history of fruitcake, including its use as nutritious, packable staple on long marches during the Middle Ages and its later transformation into a humble, bright-colored holiday confection using preserved fruit rinds and other inexpensive ingredients to lend festivity.
Giboleau said that in her youth in Canada, family members prided themselves on their “black fruitcake,” which featured a gingerbread base with fruit juice and homemade strawberry preserves for moistness.
“The old-timers would use brown paper bags and steam it like a pudding,” she recalled.
And as to whether “real” fruitcake must contain those unnaturally colored candied fruit bits; whether it should be as dense as a brick or a bit more cakey; whether the absence of booze is a disqualifier; and whether a prolonged aging period is necessary, the judges said “fiddlesticks.”
“If you call it fruitcake, it’s fruitcake,” Orr said firmly.
To all those who proudly submitted their favorite fruitcakes this year, thank you. What is left of your delicious entries after the judging will brighten the holidays for the newsroom staff and others at the Bangor Daily News.
We look forward to next year’s contest, and we wish you happy holidays — with plenty of fruitcake!
Claire Bolduc of Orono cannot reveal the identity of her friend and hiking buddy, Pigfoot, but the fruitcake recipe he gave her years ago has become a family favorite. She prefers to use organic apricots and dates, available at health food markets.
Fruitcake from the Harvard School of Film, by way of Pigfoot
1 pound of butter
2¼ cups brown sugar
1 cup honey
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon allspice
Pinch of salt
3 pounds chopped dried apricots
1½ pounds chopped dates
2 pounds pecan halves
1 pound gold raisins
1 cup apricot nectar
½ cup cream
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Butter and flour three loaf pans, one tube pan or the equivalent in smaller pans. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Cream together butter, sugar and honey, then beat in each egg one at a time. In another bowl, blend flour and spices. Add half that to the creamed ingredients; use the other half to dredge the combined fruits and nuts. Combine the apricot, lemon juice and cream. Add fruit-nut mixture and juice mixture to the other ingredients and mush all ingredients together. It is very stiff batter. Pour into prepared pans and bake at 250 until done — about 2½ hours for the loaf pans. When done, cake springs back and is golden. Drizzle or paint with a mixture of ½ cup each of orange juice and brandy. Wrap in cheesecloth and foil and chill.
Homemaker Isabelle Walsh of Kenduskeag inherited her fruitcake recipe from her mother-in-law 52 years ago and has been making it ever since.
“I’ve tweaked it some over the years,” she said. “I usually make about 20 each year and pass them out to my family and friends.”
Isabelle Walsh’s Fruitcake
1½ cups unsweetened applesauce
1 8-ounce can crushed pineapple
1½ cups sugar
½ cup canola oil
2 tablespoons molasses
3½ cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts
1 cup red candied cherries
1 cup green candied cherries
Mix together the applesauce, pineapple, sugar, canola oil, egg and molasses. Mix together 3 cups of the flour and spices, and add that mixture to the liquid ingredients. Sprinkle the remaining ½ cup of flour over the nuts and fruits, and fold that into the other ingredients. Pour into one greased tube pan or two 5-by-9 loaf pans. Decorate top with walnut halves and candied cherries. Bake at 325 F for 1½ hours or until toothpick comes out clean. Keeps well in refrigerator for up to six weeks.