I don’t know about you, but when I think of fruitcake, I think of the currant version, with almost sickly-sweet candies instead of real fruit, soaked in enough sugar to make a person vibrate out of existence if they eat a slice.
So, when I was writing a scene for an upcoming book, A Sugar Plum Christmas, and I needed a good, honest-to-goodness pioneer sweet…fruitcake really didn’t top my list. Does it top anyone’s? I was skeptical until I started watching videos on how these things were made.
Enter the Way-Back machine…
Firstly, historians aren’t wholly certain how far back fruitcakes go (is that really a surprise?). They know cakes like these were used as rations for the Roman Army, right around 27 BC. For all we know, those are still in existence. I kid…sort of.
Even then, the Romans knew that soaking the fruit, and the cake when it was complete, in alcohol, would make it safe for eating much longer than other breads. Plus, it’s calorie dense. I’ll skip the joke where I say it’s pretty dense in other ways…that’s just too easy.
From the Roman Empire to a Rancher’s Table
Well, like the Roman Empire, the Old West didn’t have many options for keeping food, especially sweets that weren’t hard candy, from spoiling. Age-old methods are tried and true and fruitcakes became the dessert of choice for Victorian homes during Christmas.
The cake was often made three months ahead of time, using the berries and fruits collected from the year before to make room for ones just collected. They would be soaked in whatever alcohol was readily available. Despite the feeling about alcohol now, feelings were different then, even children occasionally drank and women often used alcohol for homemade tinctures, so the ingredients were often right on hand.
Wherefore Art Thou, Orange
With the advent of the Transcontinental Railway in the 1880s, the one ingredient that might have been hard to come by, suddenly wasn’t. Oranges. The recipe calls for the peel of one orange and I can imagine that, prior to the availability caused by the railroad, that made the fruitcake taste much differently. Perhaps they found a way to dry and save the peels when they were more readily available during the summer months. I couldn’t find any site to confirm or deny that.
What’s interesting to me is that orange peel is one of the few items in a fruitcake recipe that doesn’t change. The spices seem to vary, the amount of flour fluxuates, what type of alcohol doesn’t matter, the types of fruits and nuts are loosey-goosey. But the orange peel is a staple.
My mother-in-law has a recipe for fruitcake from her mother and she and her sisters have not shared it yet, but they do get together annually (barring weather or the illness that shall not be named) to make one or three. I do not have that recipe, but I hear it’s pretty good. The cake is usually gone by the time I hear about it. However, here is a fabulous recipe, that I might even try:
Cite: The Old Farmer’s Almanac
- 4-5 pounds fruit and nuts:
- 1 pound dark raisins
- 1 pound white raisins
- 1/2 pound currants
- 1/2 pound candied cherries
- 1/2 pound candied pineapple
- 1/4 pound candied citron
- 2 ounces candied orange peel
- 2 ounces candied lemon peel
- 1/4 pound blanched whole almonds
- 1/4 pound whole pecans
- 1/2 cup Madeira
- 1/2 cup dark rum
- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon each: cinnamon, cloves, mace, and allspice
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1 cup white sugar
- 5 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
Put the raisins and currants in a large bowl, add the Madeira and the rum and let stand, covered, overnight. Then add the candied fruits and mix well. Sift the spices and soda with 1-½ cups of the flour, combine the remaining flour with the nuts. Add all to the fruits, mixing lightly.
In another large bowl, beat the butter until light and cream in the sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and almond extract. Add the fruit and nut mixture to the batter and stir well. Turn the batter into a well greased tube or spring mold pan. A 10-inch pan will do for this 5-½ pound cake, or two smaller cakes may be made. Bake the large cake in an oven preheated to 275 degrees F for 3-½ to 4 hours, or until a cake tester inserted near the center of the cake comes out dry. The smaller cakes will take half the time.
Let the cake stand in the pan on a wire rack for half an hour, run a knife around the pan, if a spring mold, loosen it and remove the cake gently to a piece of heavy aluminum foil large enough to enclose it completely. Fold the closing double to seal the cake completely. Once or twice before Christmas, open the foil and pour a little additional rum or wine on the cake.
When ready to use, decorate the top of the cake with a wreath of pecans and maraschino cherries and thin slices of candied fruit.