For the most part, I am a fairly practical baker. But the road to sobriety is pocked with potholes of madness. Fruitcake is one of mine.
I have always liked the idea of fruitcake. As with so many once-traditional things, I detest what it has become. And so, for years now, I have made a hobby of redeeming it.
Fruitcake used to be serious business. It has its origins in late-medieval spiced breads, whose spice and sugar alone made them suitable for festivals, and it remained expensive and laborious until the end of the nineteenth century. In Northern Europe and America, oranges, lemons, and citron had to be imported from warmer climes, and white sugar to candy them was pricey. Raisins too had to be imported, and then seeded — one at a time, by hand. Then California farmers developed seedless raisins and Florida farmers turned to citrus; by 1900 raisins were a cheap source of iron to stick in children’s food, and by the 1950s you could stock your freezer with concentrated orange juice. Industrialization made fruitcake ordinary, and dyeing glacéed cherries green and selling bricks by mail order made it a joke.
But the idea remains sound: a sweet, complex, festival cake that is both accessible to home bakers and laborious enough to be special; fruited, spiced, boozy, and completely over the top; powerfully enjoyable but easily shared, because a slice or two is probably all you need. Perfect for Christmas. In theory. How to restore it?
The first step is to candy your own citrus peel and use a mix of dried fruit for color and flavor. No technicolor goo, nothing not identifiable as food. That was easy to figure out but takes a bit of work — but hey, it’s Christmas, right?
The second step was harder to figure out but, as it happened, far easier to implement. How do you make a cake sturdy enough to hold monstrous quantities of fruit and nuts without its turning into a brick? The cake part of fruitcake is essentially a pound cake, and you need lots of eggs, but you also need something I only recognized once I’d started researching historical baking: gluten structure. Many old cakes were beaten hard after the flour, butter, and eggs were combined, and that’s what holds this fruitcake together. The method here is much the one Rose Levy Beranbaum uses in her “Perfect Pound Cake,” though it appeared decades before in a 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook (go figure). It is both an easier and a more reliable way to get all the eggs into the batter without its breaking, and the resulting crumb is about perfect.
Here, then, is real, serious fruitcake. Note that it must rest for two weeks before serving — so get started early!
Step 1: Candy the peel
2–3 hours, mostly unattended
- 4 oranges
- 2 lemons
- sugar, as needed
As we don’t need this candied peel to be lovely on its own, we can take a (relatively) simple approach. No thermometers, no soft-ball sugar.
Slice the peel from the fruit and cut into strips, taking care to catch as little of the white pith as possible. Cover the peel with cool water in a small pot and simmer gently, covered, until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes. You don’t want it so soft that it falls apart, but keep in mind that cooking it with sugar will toughen it a bit.
Drain the peel, reserving the water. (If you left very much pith on the peel, you can easily scrape it off now with a knife.) Return to the pot with enough of the reserved water barely to cover and twice as much sugar as water. Simmer this very gently for an hour or two until the peel is translucent and tastes candied.
Drain the peel on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. When cool, dredge it in additional sugar and store in a tightly sealed container until needed. It will keep for several weeks, so you can make it early when you have a spare evening.
The leftover syrup is excellent in iced tea and makes a brilliant old fashioned (where it’s both the sugar and the bitters).
Step 2: Soak the fruit
3 hours, mostly unattended
- 2 cups chopped candied citrus peel (from step 1)
- 2 cups raisins
- 3 cups chopped dried fruit (see below)
- 1/2 cup bourbon
Combine your fruit and peel in a bowl, douse with the bourbon, mix well, cover, and let soak for 3 hours or overnight.
The dried fruit can be anything you like, but I like a mix, and I prefer to contrast the sweet raisins with something tart. My favorite blend is equal parts dates, dried apricots, and dried cranberries. Figs make the whole cake taste figgy. Cherries are lovely but once mixed with everything else, not worth the money. Pineapple lends a nice flavor, but it can be sweet and gooey. Whatever you use, chop everything to about the size of a raisin so you’ll get a mix in every bite.
The bourbon should be cheap. Any fine notes of flavor will be buried and lost in baking; what you want is the essential sharp gutsy quality of the whiskey to cut through all the sugar.
Step 3: Bake your cake
3 hours, mostly unattended
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon mace
- 1/2 pound butter, softened
- 6 large eggs
- soaked dried fruit (from step 2)
- 3 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
Grease two 9×5-inch loaf pans, then line them with parchment paper and grease them again. Leave the parchment hanging over the edges an inch or so for easier removal.
Combine the dry ingredients (including the sugar) in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix gently to combine.
In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs to combine.
Add the softened butter and half the eggs to the dry ingredients and beat on high speed for 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl. Add the remaining eggs half at a time, beating 30 seconds and scraping the bowl after each addition. Lastly, fold in the nuts and the soaked fruit with any remaining liquid.
Scrape the batter into your loaf pans and bake 2 to 2½ hours at 300°F, until a cake tester comes out just clean.
Lift the cakes out by their parchment handles and cool on racks.
Lacking a stand mixer, you can, of course, make this by hand. Whisk the dry ingredients together, use a wooden spoon for the batter, and beat like hell.
The brown sugar can be light or dark, your choice. The flour should be all-purpose and not cake flour as you need the gluten for structure. And the spices are to taste, so feel free to experiment.
You could probably bake this in a bundt pan, which might be nice for serving at a party. I haven’t tried it.
Step 4: Cure the cakes, and wait
2 weeks, all but entirely unattended
- 1/2 cup brandy
Drizzle each of the takes with half the brandy (so, 2 tablespoons each). Place them in a tightly sealed container (lacking which I have rigged something up with a brandy-damp flour sack towel and a stockpot, and been fine) and walk away for a week.
After 1 week, drizzle the cakes with the remaining brandy and put them away again.
After another week, you can — yes! — eat the damn things. You’ve earned it.