May It Please the Palate

By Nick Roumel

How did holiday fruitcake get to be such a joke? Don’t people like dried fruits, nuts, and cake? Yet “Nobody likes me,” laments the slice of fruitcake on the psychiatrist’s couch, in a comic I saw. “Fruitcake,” harrumphs the shrink in his thought bubble.

A 2002 Village Voice article blames “some goon” who discovered how to preserve fruit in cheap sugar, shipped to the colonies in the 16th Century. This led to an overabundance of cloyingly sweet fruit, both native varieties and imports. All these sugared fruits managed to get crammed into the same cake.

The same cake indeed! Johnny Carson used to joke that “there is only one fruitcake in the world, and people keep sending it to each other.” His successor, Jay Leno, once sampled a 125 year old fruitcake, preserved through generations by an Alabama family. Slicing off a small piece, he gingerly tasted it. “It needs more time,” he quipped.

Thank demon rum for that fruitcake’s staying power. Brandy, rum, liqueur and wine might all find their way into this traditional confection. The alcohol prevents mold, and moderates the sweetness. This won’t happen in certain parts of the Bible Belt; most Southern recipes are strictly for tee-totalers.

Paradoxically, the pious Trappist Monks of Kentucky lace their famous fruitcakes with fine Kentucky Bourbon and red wine; they boast the Wall Street Journal once called theirs the “best overall with quality and value.” A five pounder will set you back a cool $65.75.

Fruitcakes are a tradition throughout the world, from German Stollen, to the rum soaked “black cake” of Trinidad and Tobago, to English and Canadian “Christmas Cakes,” to the ubiquitous mass produced varieties from Southern companies such as Claxton. The addition of cheap nuts, available in the South, prompted someone in 1935 to coin the phrase “nuttier than a fruitcake.”

Lately, a food listserv to which I belong has been fiercely debating fruitcake recipes. One quoted Laurie Colwin of Gourmet Magazine, who said that a Jamaican Black Cake was to fruitcake “as Brahms’ piano quartets are to Muzak.”

This recipe from Alton Brown is a no-shortcuts, rum soaked delight. Given the amount of time he recommends, you might want to think about this one for next year. (Or 125 years from now, if you’re so inclined.)


1 cup golden raisins

1 cup currants

1/2 cup each: sun dried cranberries, sun dried blueberries , sun dried cherries, chopped dried apricots

Zest of one lemon, chopped coarsely

Zest of one orange, chopped coarsely

1/4 cup candied ginger, chopped

1 cup gold rum

1 cup sugar

5 ounces unsalted butter (1 1/4 sticks)

1 cup unfiltered apple juice

4 whole cloves, ground

6 allspice berries, ground

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken

Brandy for basting and/or spritzing


Combine dried fruits, candied ginger and both zests. Add rum and macerate overnight, or microwave for 5 minutes to re-hydrate fruit. Place fruit and liquid in a non-reactive pot with the sugar, butter, apple juice and spices. Bring to a boil stirring often, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for at least 15 minutes. (Batter can be completed up to this point, then covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before completing cake.) Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine dry ingredients and sift into fruit mixture. Quickly bring batter together with a large wooden spoon, then stir in eggs one at a time until completely integrated, then fold in nuts. Spoon into a 10-inch non-stick loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Check for doneness by inserting toothpick into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, it's done. If not, bake another 10 minutes, and check again. Remove cake from oven and place on cooling rack or trivet. Baste or spritz top with brandy; allow to cool completely before turning out from pan.

When cake is completely cooled, seal in a tight sealing, food safe container. Every 2 to 3 days, feel the cake and if dry, spritz with brandy. The cake's flavor will enhance considerably over the next two weeks.

Brown closes with this: “If you decide to give the cake as a gift, be sure to tell the recipient that they are very lucky indeed.”

And if you don’t feel so lucky to have a fruitcake? Go to Manitou Springs, Colorado, which hosts the Great Fruitcake Toss on the first Saturday of every January. The all-time record was set in January 2007 by a group of Boeing engineers who fashioned a pneumatic cannon, that shot the fruitcake into the mountains, a reported 1225 feet according to a Global Positioning System.

Contest organizers also take pride in recycling fruitcakes. Says one, “We...patch them back together... and try to preserve them for another year. We have some pretty scary looking fruitcakes that are 10 or 12 years old.”

Nice, but too young for the Tonight Show.