As the holidays approach, there are inevitably some jokes about heavy, hard, inedible fruitcakes that get passed around as gifts. Some people, I would bet, have never had a fruitcake – and no small part of that is due to the cake’s bad reputation. So, what is fruitcake? And is it really as bad as it is made out to be?
Fruitcake is a dense, spicy cake that is made with dried fruits, candied fruits and nuts. Most fruitcakes have more fruits in them than batter to hold them together, hence their reputation for being heavy and not as light or fluffy as some cakes. The fruit – and indeed the cake itself – is traditionally soaked in brandy or some kind of other liquor. This does add flavor, but the liquor has a preservative effect on the cake, as well. A well-soaked and carefully wrapped cake can last for months, and the flavors in the cake will meld together and deepen over that time. A cake that will last this long is not necessarily a requirement for most of today’s cake bakers, but fruitcakes have been around for centuries and the ability to preserve the cake was extremely important long before refrigeration.
If you have a fruitcake, and you can buy good ones from many retailers (the one above is from Harry & David), serve it in small slices. The spicy flavors and the sweet fruits actually make for a great combination, and while a bad one makes a good doorstop, a good one can still be a part of the holiday celebrations.