grocery store display of fruitcakes

Fruitcake. Seriously

grocery store display of fruitcakes
Just say no to… whatever these guys are selling. Photograph of Curtis Candy Company display in Jacksonville, Florida, 1947, courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

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!

Molasses-ginger cookies

Most molasses cookies and ginger snaps harden not long after you take them out of the oven. The extra egg yolk keeps these soft for days.

  • 3/4 cup butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 egg + 1 egg yolk
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • granulated sugar for rolling
  1. Combine melted butter, brown sugar, and molasses thoroughly. Add the egg and egg yolk; combine well.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a second bowl. Add the butter-sugar-egg mixture and combine well.
  3. Chill the dough until it is manageable. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper (or grease them lightly).
  4. Form scant 1/4-cup scoops into balls; roll in granulated sugar. Place on lined cookie sheets and flatten slightly. Bake 15 minutes or until the edges are just set; the centers will still be quite soft. If using parchment paper, slide the entire paper off the cookie sheet onto racks to cool; this will help to keep the cookies intact.

Remembrance of produce past, part 2

My grandmother taught me to eat radishes. Or, I should say, I learned the habit from her; I don’t think she had any grand plan to indoctrinate me. She served radishes and scallions with breakfast, accompanied by individual dishes of salt for dipping. My cousin and I, aged about five, theorized implausibly about why the salt improved the flavor of the radish. We could agree only that without salt, the radish tasted impossibly harsh; with it, like heaven. (I may not have been a typical five year old.)

I have met few people since — all right, no one — who can match my love of radishes. It stems probably from the combination of a country upbringing and an addictive streak that demands excitement and strong flavors. To eat them for breakfast, as I still sometimes do, strikes me as so impossibly old-fashioned that it isn’t even country anymore but rather a bizarre twenty-first century transplant from the German-speaking rural Pennsylvania of 1925.

Saturday I bought the season’s first radishes at the market along with a bunch of watercress, another treat the Pennsylvania Dutch side of my family enjoyed in springs long past. Lacking any direct experience with that tradition, I made this sandwich for lunch, and lacking any desperately pressing work, I did the very German thing and drank a dark beer with my radishes. After all, I needed something to toast my ancestors.

Radish and watercress sandwich

  • 2 slices chewy, hearty whole-grain bread, preferably homemade
  • 1 tablespoon butter, softened
  • 2–3 large radishes, sliced thinly
  • several sprigs watercress
  • salt

Butter the bread. Cover one slice of bread with half the radish slices and sprinkle with salt. Add the remaining radishes and sprinke with salt again. Top with the watercress and the second slice of buttered bread. Serve with a bock or porter.

Remembrance of produce past

When I was young my mother tended a small garden. I’ve forgotten most of what she grew. I assume there were tomatoes (why have a garden if you’re not going to grow tomatoes?). Probably zucchini. My father would have insisted on parsley. There were peas, which I remember because when I was about five years old we ate them for dinner on the Saturday before Easter when the temperature reached ninety-three degrees. (Why we remember certain things from our childhood and not others is a subject for another posting, but suffice to say that nearly all of my most vivid memories from before the age of seven involve food. I can always tell you what we had for dinner the night of any major event.)

What I remember most from that garden are beets. In the early spring, when they were young and tender, we ate beet greens with butter and salt; later in the season my mother pickled them. By the time I was nine or ten she no longer gardened, and I was an adult before I tasted beet greens or home pickled beets again. You can’t buy baby beets with their greens still tender in a supermarket, and store-bought pickles never stack up.

We didn’t plant beets this year — an oversight — but this morning I bought a bunch of baby beets at the farmers market. For dinner I steamed them with their greens If my mother had been here she would have enjoyed them, but I had to enjoy them for the both of us. I offer the recipe (such as it is) in case you are lucky enough to have them available.

Baby beets steamed with their greens

For this recipe, the beets should be no bigger around than a penny and the greens young, tender, and bright green. They should come as whole plants, pulled from the ground, bunched for sale.

  1. Thoroughly wash the beets and greens. Trim the long roots and cut the beets from the stems, discarding the tough part where stem meets root. If necessary, cut the beets into small pieces (no larger than 1/4 inch). Chop the stems and set aside with the beets. Chop the greens and set aside in a second pile.
  2. Place the chopped beets and stems in a pot and barely cover with water. Add a half teaspoon of salt per bunch. Bring to a boil and cook until tender (about five minutes). Then add the greens, return to a boil, and cook another two to three minutes until they too are tender. (It may take longer to cook the greens, but if it takes longer than five minutes, they were probably too old.)
  3. Most of the water should have boiled off, but if some remains, drain the beets and greens. Add a tablespoon of butter and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice per bunch. Taste for salt and serve hot.