There is no gift more vilified, more dreaded or more ridiculed than fruitcake, which too often is mass produced with cheap ingredients.
That's a shame, because at its best, fruitcake is a delicious mix of dried fruits and nuts, bound by sugar, flour, eggs and a few spices. But at its worst, fruitcake is rock hard, laced with day-glo candied fruit and bitter citron. Liberally laced with alcohol, a fruitcake can last 10-plus years, adding to its supernatural horror. No wonder people in Pepin, Wis. launch them from a catapult each winter.
The practice of making cakes with dried fruits and honey dates back to ancient times, and was often a means of food preservation. Not only could fruits be conserved, but they could be served out of season, when fresh fruit was difficult to come by. Egyptians considered fruitcake an essential food for the afterlife, while the conquering force of the Roman legions was fruitcake-powered.
Fruitcake as we know it today is a product of the Middle Ages, when sweet ingredients like honey and spices were added to the mix. The arrival of cheap sugar in Europe from the colonies, beginning in the 16th century, led to a flourishing of sweet, fruitcake-like breads, including panettone, black cake, dreikonigsbrot, king cake, babka and my personal favorite, stollen.
So what makes a fruitcake? The fruit-to-cake ratio is key. If there is less than 50% fruit, you're not really talking about fruitcake. The fruitcakes from Swiss Colony in Monroe, for example, average 75% fruit and nuts.
Despite what you see in grocery stores, candied fruits in unnatural colors are not obligatory and should, in my opinion, be avoided. Naturally sweet, dried fruits are the key..
Alcohol allows for long-term storage and also mellows the sweetness of the ingredients. Fruitcakes actually do taste better with age because the dried fruit, like red wine, contain tannins that are released over time to create complex flavors and aromas.
So mix up a batch of the bread that keeps on giving, year after year, joke after joke.
1/3 cup chopped dried cherries
2/3 cup dried cranberries
2/3 cup currants
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons light rum
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup un-sulfured molasses
2/3 cup chopped walnuts
In a container or Ziploc bag, soak the dried fruit in 1/4 cup of rum for at least a day, covered tightly and at room temperature. Preheat oven to 325. Butter and line a 6-inch round pan or 4 x 8-1/2-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy; add eggs, one at a time. Add the flour in 3 batches, alternating with the milk and molasses. Stir in the fruit/rum mixture and nuts. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 55 minutes to 1 hour. Let cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of rum.
To age the cake: Place a piece of parchment paper, large enough to wrap entire cake, on a flat surface. Moisten a piece of cheesecloth, large enough to wrap the cake, with 1 tablespoon rum. Place the cheesecloth on top of the parchment, and unmold the cake on top of it. Sprinkle the top and sides of the cake with the remaining rum. Wrap the cake, pressing the cheesecloth closely to the surface of the cake. Place in an airtight container, and age for at least 4 weeks. If storing longer, douse with additional rum for every 4 weeks of storage.