If there is a common whipping boy and punchline to a bad christmas gift joke, it has to be Fruitcake.
Nothing is more maligned than the physics defying density and rich booze soaked cake. It turns out, that fruitcake is something that crosses continents* and has diverse regional variations in style, ingredients and tradition. So for one short, dark, snowy day, at least, the fruit cake gets its due.
In general, the fruitcake is a cake made with preserved or candied fruits, nuts and in many cases the cake is soaked in spirits which help to preserve the cake and the fruit. This cake of preserves. was a great way to pack lots of very stable calories into a relatively small package. For people who may have been travelling long distances or may be working for long periods of time in the cold this was a great way to bring large amount of calories without them going bad. And who doesn’t enjoy something sweet on a cold day.
The preservation of fruits and veggies with sugar and/or salt has been a tradition for thousands of years. However it was the Romans who first figured out that you could also create a cake by integrating dried fruits, nuts, and barley mash. Thus began the tradition of putting fruits and nuts into a medium who’s flavour and texture is dubious at best. Over time, fruitcake then began to evolve. Spices, honey, preserved fruit and flour began to be integrated into the annals of fruitcake lore. Of course the pope had to get his nose into the fruitcake fray as the recipe began to proliferate across the European continent. Periodic bans places on the use of butter and cream in cooking retarded the growth of Fruitcake since they began to taste too good.
In the mid 14oo’s Pope Innocent VIII declared using butter and cream in baking to be no longer a sin**. With that the German take on the fruit cake was born in the city of Dresden. The Dresdner Stollen is a fruit cake usually with dried fruit, spice, nuts and marzipan. The cake is then coated in icing sugar. The Stollen is great because it eats more like a bread then a cake. It’s not your usual heavy or dense texture you come to expect from fruitcake, so it’s actually one I would recommend in a big way. If you can get your hands on a Stollen this Christmas do it…but please pay for it.
There are regional derivations of fruitcake all over the world. Most people think of the traditional British fruitcake which involved orange zest, maraschino cherries, raisins, nuts and super dense boozy cake, but because of imperialism we see most of the British Commonwealth with regional varieties. Canada tends to pretty much always stick with the british tradition but in places like India, Australia, New Zealand, Tinadad & Tobago and The Bahamas all have different twists on fruitcake be it regional ingredients, regional liquors, or regional techniques being applied***. In Ireland we see the regional fruitcake Barmbrack eating it at Halloween.****
I have given fruitcake a hard time but it’s actually pretty nice if you are are ever hungover and you want to make french toast with. It’s like hair of the dog and something weirdly tasty the morning after a few glasses of wine too many. Enjoy your seasonal spotlight fruitcake.
*Literally, it doesn’t go bad
**Thanks Catholicism, a pope named Innocent lifted a ban on butter and cream. It’s all coming together now.
***I could give more information on this but I choose to save you the pain of reading more than 600 words on Fruitcake. I am here to inform not to push anyone to suicide.
****As one would expect the Irish seem to start putting alcohol into their cakes earlier in the holiday season than most the rest of the world.