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The ghosts of fruitcakes past, present and future
window opening to a little more light. The holidays are here, chiefly the cultural, economic and religious juggernaut that is Christmas. Black Friday has come and gone, decorations are going up and there are many scents in the air. It seems that just opening the window one can at least imagine catching whiffs of pine tree sap ... unkempt reindeer stables (I wonder which elves got stuck with that duty this year) and of course freshly baked, or aged, fruitcake.
Yes, fruitcake, the long lived, once beloved and lately laughed at phenomenon of the Christmas fruitcake. Where did this all begin? The American fruitcake tradition is a British import, where they apparently are still quite popular in their myriad forms. Beyond that, fruitcakes in general have been baked for a very long time and have been traced back to the era of the Roman Empire.
Why the fruitcake, though? Why not a Christmas baguette, some Santa (bear) Claus perhaps? Preservation is one good reason. Cakes of sugared fruit, alcohol and nuts keep well. Ancient soldiers and sojourners of all kinds would take variations of fruitcakes with them on journeys because they would last a long time and the calorie density made for an excellent choice when there wasn't much space to spare for provisions.
Just how long would they last? Some fruitcakes will make it up to a year if carefully wrapped. In fact in the 18th century there are stories of Europeans making fruitcakes using nuts from that year's harvest, saving them and then eating them at the next year's harvest as a sort of edible good luck charm in hopes of a bountiful yield.
So, up to the time of airports, automobiles and express shipping, distant relatives were that much more distant and any baked goods given as gifts had to last. Or if the visitors were coming to you, the cake could be made well in advance, particularly because back then there wasn't much fresh fruit in northern latitudes in December. Many people undoubtedly consider the possibility of eating a several month old cake unpalatable; me among them. However, there are those that suggest a fruitcake will improve with age (perhaps include a vintage label on your next one).
Another probable reason for the Christmas connection is that fruitcakes used to take quite a bit of effort to create, meaning that if someone made you one, they were willing to go to quite a bit of trouble on your behalf. As listed in the "Oxford Companion to Food," "Making a rich fruit cake in the 18th century was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned (taking the pits out) if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or barm from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed to life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time. No wonder these cakes acquired such mystique ...."
- "Oxford Companion to Food," Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press:Oxford 1999
From this to a "Tonight Show" skit? There is some rich and dense tradition here. I am going to openly suggest we turn the tide against the culture of fruitcake mockery by making them better. They don't have to be horrible little bricks of neon tinted barely-fruit.
It's probably the eggnog, but I'm feeling inspired. I'm out to make a fruitcake to be proud of. For a while now I've been thinking of borrowing from the Italians and attempting to make a locally inspired version of the Milanese Christmas bread called panettone; A "Peninsula Panettone" perhaps (perfect).
The traditional U.S. version could use some work as well. So, if any of my fellow experimentally inclined bakers want to join me in reclaiming some respect for the this holiday icon and would like to take a shot at updating or even reinventing the fruitcake, already have done so in Decembers past or have any fruitcake-related stories, I would love to hear about it. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll archive the best suggestions, recipes and tales for inclusion in a future holiday column, recipe book, Web page ... something anyway. Happy holidays everyone!
Roger Stukey is an owner/operator of Cedar Creek in Sequim.