In Defense of Fruitcake

Posted Dec. 21, 2008, at 6:27 p.m.

As the holiday season approaches, there is always a lot of loose talk about fruitcake. This newspaper’s columnist Emmet Meara, true to form, has gotten off some jibes like calling it “the Al Gore of holiday food — no one really likes it.” A few days later, Meg Haskell led some others on the news side to test seven varieties. They chose two as winners but seemed to love them all.

Fruitcake is easy to ridicule — door stops, overdone commercial substitutes, and all that — but there are those who adore it. So here is an unvarnished verdict:

Everyone should know by this time, courtesy of Mr. Meara, that fruitcake has a long and unsavory history. The Romans made an inedible version suitable for catapult ammo. The Crusaders also used it as a weapon. A Middle Ages recipe led to the Dark Ages. And so on.

Another negative is the flood of commercial fruitcakes, heavily advertised and gussied up so that they are soft and spongy and far from the real thing. A further shortcoming is the custom of giving them away to people who haven’t the stomach for them, so that they get passed from one to another and develop a tiresome reputation.

But the army of skilled fruitcake makers, mostly oldsters, to be sure, are turning out a product that merits a rousing defense.

At its best, fruitcake is beautiful, tasty, nourishing and a fine once-a-year treat. Ideally it is packed with varicolored candied fruit: red cherries, orange apricots, yellow citron, golden grapes and some sort of mysterious green fruit, which may be dyed citron, together with some pecans or almonds to add a crunchy texture. Irma Rombauer advises in her classic “Joy of Cooking” to buy the fruit at a specialty store. She says supermarket offerings “all taste alike, and are not very distinguished at that.”

The fruit and nuts, often soaked in brandy, are held together by a minimum of binder, letting the fruit and nuts shine forth.

When the fruitcake has been baked and wrapped in plastic or cheese cloth and the brandy and moisture of the fruit has spread through it, it is ready to eat. Slice it thin. That lets them ask for more. Also it is too rich to be wolfed down.

There’s another purpose of the thin slices. Hold one up to the light and it will look like a stained glass window.

Some cooks warm their fruitcake and serve it with hard sauce. Steamed plum pudding, soaked with rum or brandy, with hard sauce melting on top with the help of lemony hot sour sauce, is lovely, too. But that’s another story.

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