I like fruitcake, but not just any fruitcake, no, I only like—
Wait, what am I saying? I like all fruitcake. All fruitcake. If you ever wonder who buys those stale cakes at the grocery store every year, that would be me. If you spit out fruitcake because of the artificially-colored cherries and scream, “Who the [bad word] eats this [bad word]?!” the answer is me. If you don’t know what to do with the box of lead weight that your Aunt Marge sent you this week, send it to me. Cheap fruitcake, dense fruitcake, light fruitcake, boozy fruitcake, mass-produced fruitcake, homemade fruitcake, it doesn’t matter; I’ve made it, I’ve bought it, I’ve inherited it, and I’ve eaten it all. Heck, I even love colored candied fruit, and I’m sorry, but I’m not going to apologize for it.
It comes down to being human. Something instinctively draws me to fruitcake like honey draws a bear. A bite of fruitcake makes every cell holler with gratified desire. This, the body knows, is the ultimate sustenance. Fruitcake is among the densest caloric foods without being pure fat or pure sugar. My brother took the remains of a brandy-soaked fruitcake I made one year and saved it to eat before and after he ran a marathon. He understood its value. I eat it because it’s delicious. I know many (in the U.S., at least) don’t think so, or that many people only like homemade aged fruitcakes or Christmas puddings, but I like them all. So yeah, blame people like me for propping up the day-glo fruitcake industry.
This reckless lack of discrimination among fruitcakes eventually came to an end. I remember it like it was yesterday. Actually it was last week, on December 8, with a recipe I’d been saving called “Smith Family White Fruitcake” from Jeffrey Steingarten’s delightful The Man Who Ate Everything. I wanted to make it because of Steingarten’s loving descriptions of the cake’s “frolicsome mosaic of yellows, reds, and greens.” Then he said you were supposed to refrigerate the cakes “before cutting them into thin slices while they are still cold.” I just can’t resist sexy talk like that. On December 7, I baked the recipe with modifications. On December 8, despite the instructions to let it age at least three days in the fridge, I shaved off a slice because it smelled so so so good.
Things instantly changed. I still like all fruitcake, but now I love only this one. By all objective standards, I messed up the cake because I changed the recipe too much. I chose to soak the dried fruit ahead of time and substituted some of them. Instead of two loaf pans, the batter went into one extra long 16-cup pan. Knowing the large pan would take longer to bake, I baked it at 275 instead of 300 to avoid the dark crust that Steingarten warned is a “fatal flaw”. After two hours of baking, it didn’t look done, so I added another hour or two. By the end, the long low temperature had created a thick firm crust around the cake. This fatal flaw was…so not.
I would try to describe it, but every time I come up with an adjective I come up with another, then another: buttery, glorious, chewy, moist, heady. No one flavor dominates—you can’t even taste the raisins, which is good because I don’t really like raisins. This is a living fruitcake. It’s not the same from day to day, week to week. That thick crust starts out like a nutty crispy caramel fruitcake cookie encasing a soft fruitcake center. I couldn’t stop eating it. After four days, the whole thing became fudge-like and sweeter. I couldn’t stop eating that either. I can’t wait to see what it’s like by Christmas, when it will probably sprout wings and ascend to heaven, taking me with it where I’ll dance through fields of fruitcake flowers and sleep on fruitcake beds with fruitcake pillows. I can’t even wait to see what it’s like right now, but I’ve triple-wrapped it and sealed the package with multiple layers of packing tape because I COULDN’T STOP EATING IT AND VISIONS OF FRUITCAKE DANCED IN MY HEAD.
God help me, I want to make another one following the directions exactly this time just to compare, but what I really want is an excuse to rip off that packing tape and eat the rest of the first cake because, after all, I’m going to make more! But that would be wrong and make me so very, very fat. Besides, I can’t imagine anything better than the way I made it, mistakes and everything. So here’s my version. If the original turns out better, I’ll post an update, but I’m not counting on trying it again this year because my scale has threatened to pack its bags.
Adapted from The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten
Makes two large loaves, ideal for bicep curls
The original recipe is “white” because it uses no spices or dark fruit, just a pound of golden raisins and about a pound each of candied cherries and candied pineapple in assorted colors. My cake used some darker fruit and so was more brown than white. Personally, I think candied fruit is what makes this cake so fantastic, but any fruit should be fine as long as you have three pounds of it, more or less. The ingredients I’ve listed are simply what I had on hand and are not set in stone. Despite the cake’s denseness, the caramelized flavor and the citrus touches make this a relatively light fruitcake that I suspect would not benefit from spices, alcohol, or even brown sugar, but it’s your fruitcake now, do what you will.
· 1 pound chopped dates
· 1 pound golden raisins
· 1/4 pound candied lemon peel
· 1/4 pound candied orange peel
· 1/4 pound candied citron
· 1/4 pound candied pineapple
· 1/4 pound candied ginger
· 1 pound walnut halves
· 1 pound butter (4 sticks), at room temperature
· 1 pound white sugar (2 1/4 cups)
· 1/2 teaspoon salt
· 6 large eggs
· 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract if using candied citrus
OR 3 Tablespoons lemon extract if not using candied citrus (could also use zest)
· 1 pound all-purpose flour (4 cups)
1) Soak dates and raisins overnight in water (next time I plan to soak them in orange juice). Drain. Rinse candied fruit with cold water and drain. Chop any large pieces of fruit into pieces no larger than 1/2-inch. Mix all fruits and walnuts in a bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients, including the batter that will be added later.
2) Preheat oven to 275ºF. Grease two large 8-cup loaf pans with butter or shortening. Line with parchment or brown paper and grease again. If your pans are dark, wrap them with foil shiny side out to prevent a blackened crust.
3) Beat butter until light, gradually add sugar and salt and beat until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in 3 eggs and the extract, then half the flour, then the other 3 eggs. End with the remaining flour. Beat until combined. Pour the batter into the fruit and nuts, mix thoroughly. This might be easier with your hands. Fill the pans, leaving a 1/4-inch space between the batter and the top of the pan (these cakes don’t rise much).
4) Bake the cakes for 1 hour. Remove them from the oven and wrap or cover tightly in foil, leaving some room at the top to let the cake expand. Bake another hour or two or three until the cakes show signs of slightly pulling from the sides of the pan and the crust is golden brown but not dark. (Warning: The soggy top from the steam makes it very hard to gauge doneness. I stuck a thermometer into the center and decided that at 180, they were done enough. After they cooled, what looked like a puddly, soggy mess firmed up nicely.)
5) Cool completely in pans on a rack. Remove cakes from pans, wrap tightly in several layers of airtight plastic or foil, and refrigerate at least overnight. Slice off thin slivers with a sharp knife. This may be difficult because of the firm crust. A non-serrated thin knife such a boning knife seems to work best. If the slicing fatigues you, eat the chewy end pieces to recharge your energy. Lasts at least three weeks in the refrigerator, probably longer, but frankly it will be a miracle if it sticks around that long.