November 26, 2011

Fruitcake Redeemed

Fruitcake has a bad reputation, earned in large part, by the traditional Christmas fruitcake which begins to pop up in supermarkets and department store catalogues this time of year. That seasonal brick of bizarre ingredients: gloopy cherries in unlikely shades of day-glo green and lollipop red, gelatinous candied citron peel and ancient nuts (if any) bound together with a syrupy-sweet blend of mysterious ingredients, the traditional Christmas fruitcake can be loved only by World War II survivors for whom anything was a step up from Spam and powdered potatoes. A fan of this type of fruitcake, like everyone else who claims to hate fruitcake, I am not in the least, but I do love what I like to call 'real' fruitcake.

I first discovered 'real' fruitcake at the age of sixteen, when our family friend Catherine, who was trained as a pastry chef, gave my parents a cake as part of a Christmas basket of home-baked treats. The cake was dark, very dark, with a thick layer of marzipan frosting, and it exuded a fragrance so deep, so rich, as could only be achieved by many months' soaking in brandy. No dye-injected maraschino cherries here, only dried fruits and fresh nuts cured to a wondrous flavour which married well with the sweet almond paste - delicious, and meant to be consumed in small quantities.

Many years later, I read an article in Martha Stewart Living about fruitcakes. The article claimed to be able to change virtually every fruitcake hater's mind about this ancient dessert which in its basic form dates from seventh century Persia, and included several recipes with names like 'Chocolate Panforte' full of dried cherries and hazelnuts, 'The Dowager Duchess Fruitcake' spiked with sherry, and the 'Fruit and Stout Cake' doused weekly with 1/4 cup of Guinness (I presume the baker consumes what's left in the bottle?). The food editors' favourite fruitcake was from an Australian family recipe called 'The Backhouse Family Fruitcake.' I decided to try that one. It was delicious, and each November since, around the American Thanksgiving and the beginning of the Advent Season, I have made the Backhouse Family Fruitcake. My husband cannot imagine Christmas without a slice of this fruitcake and a glass of port, and I have come to enjoy the making and then weekly tending of what he likes to call 'the booze cake.'*

I begin by locating my battered copy of Martha Stewart Living, December 2000.

I purchase my ingredients and set aside a morning for baking.

I cut the dried pineapple, apricots, dates, and cherries with scissors, chop the almonds and brazil nuts, and mix them all together in a large bowl.

A rich batter flavoured with vanilla and rum will bind the nuts and fruit together, deliciously I might add.

The cakes are ready for the oven.

They bake for an hour and a half turning golden brown and aromatic.

After the cakes cool, I wrap them in muslin and douse them in rum. Each week I will bathe them in more rum.

As they soak up the alcohol, the nuts and fruit cure to a slice-able state, and later in December, when we are putting up and decorating the Christmas tree, we will test the first cake and enjoy a slice with a glass of port. At least my husband and I will...the kids still won't touch the stuff. "Fruitcake? Hmm... no thanks."
That's alright, all the more for us. I'm willing to bet I could change their mind about fruitcake with some chocolate panforte, which I also plan to make this year.

*My husband borrowed the phrase from our nephew Christopher who used to call Panettone, the Italian Christmas cake, 'booze cake' when he was little. It was a favourite of his.

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In other news...I was thrilled last week to receive, compliments of Lucille from Useful or Beautiful, her giveaway prize of a Nelson Ball Clock. Here, I give her a blogger's extra-large thank-you. The clock is admired by the residents of our house, as well as its visitors. I know we will enjoy passing the time with it for years to come.

Happy Weekend!


  1. I made fruitcake years ago with 2 friends from highschool. Felt quite proud of ourselves. Also made gingerbread houses. The gingerbread house tradition has made it to something we've done with our kids (even made it out of chocolate one year, using a cast iron mold, when they were too young to help -- finishing it at 3:30 a.m. Christmas eve so it would be on the table when they woke up). Thanks for the inspiration -- by your writing, baking, photography and homemaking. And singing too.

  2. We love fruitcake also ... and Flip loves port! Chocolate port ...
    I wonder if Christopher will be enjoying some booze-cake this Christmas?

  3. Sounds great - but never put marzipan near a fruit cake for me!!!


  4. I am bathing my cake weekly in brandy and thinking of you. Cheers!

  5. Heather: Someday I'd also like to make Christmas pudding. I've never made a gingerbread house from scratch. Anything I'm going to put tonnes of work into has to be completely a chocolate gingerbread house...yum! Thanks for reading!

    Anne: I wonder, too! I'll bet his girlfriend's Polish mother bakes up some delicious traditions, though.

    Al: I don't put marzipan on my fruitcake, so rest easy :)

    Lucille: Hooray! Cheers to you, as well :) I'll bet your cake is delectable.

  6. Soooooo not so much a cake then as a medium for the transport of West India's best. :-D

  7. Mmmmmm! Lovely - I might get baking after all.

  8. Vince: Guilty as charged :)

    Kate: I hope you do...when my kids were little, my Christmas baking consisted mainly of gingerbread men, which they loved to decorate.

  9. Having never made a fruitcake, this was immensely interesting. Bathed so lovingly in rum! And I love the "booze cake" moniker.

  10. oh now that is a really cool clock...the fruitcake...ok i might try yours...i am typically not a fan of the gelatenous rum soaked mess my FIL pulls out of the corner from 50 years ago each year...

  11.'s the rum that my mom's fruit cake is missing. :)

    You're a good wife and mom to make such a special treat for your family.

    I love that clock! I might have to track it down for a possible present.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!