Why Fruitcake Is One of the First True Global Recipes

published Dec 23, 2015
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When my partner and I decided to run away to Scotland to get married, we thought nothing could be more romantic. Bagpipes, whisky, and local venison for an intimate wedding party of four. And then came the delicious sweet finale, that symbol of riches and good fortune served at every British wedding: the fruitcake.

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Americans who have mostly known a dried-out doorstop crammed with radioactive green cherries find it hard to think that this was once a dish of kings — or at least the landed gentry. But back in the mists of time, when being able to afford culinary luxuries imported from around the world had far more cultural caché than supporting your local farmer, fruitcake was an indulgence that made a display of your net worth and your international flair. Currants from Greece, candied citrus from Italy, nutmeg from Indonesia — it takes a globe to make a proper fruitcake.

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And yet, there lingers this question of where exactly on that globe the tradition of fruitcake comes from. The “Oxford Companion to Food” calls it “a British speciality.” Imagine wall-to-wall currants, raisins, figs, dates, sometimes walnuts or almonds, and candied orange and citron, all barely glued together with a hint of dough and lashings of booze. (Booze that gets refreshed every few days in a process of “feeding.”) Drape it in a layer of smooth rolled fondant and you have Christmas cake. Steam it instead of baking it, and you get Christmas pudding, eager to be doused in more booze, set alight, and served with brandy hard sauce.

But the Brits don’t own the idea of fruitcake.

Fruitcake Around the World

“Imagine a fruitcake that’s not moist; it’s chewy,” says Kristina Gill, co-author of the forthcoming “Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City,” describing the black pepper-infused panpepato of Ferrara. It’s the not-too-distant cousin of the more familiar panforte of Sienna. These are dense, intense slices similar to the Spanish pan de higo (fig cake). But they’re wildly different from traditions like Portuguese bolo rei (king cake) or German stollen, both born of soft yeasted dough spotted with candied fruit.

European colonialism spread both styles of fruitcake around the globe. Consider Chilean pan de pascua, a lighter cake that often turns up with the familiar candied cherries. Or Trinidad black cake, darkened with burnt sugar syrup. “It demonstrates the real diversity of the Caribbean — it’s actually based on an Irish fruitcake, but adapted to locally available goods,” explains Ramin Ganeshram, food and culture writer and author of “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago.” “It has all the warm, aromatic flavor of a plum pudding, but with a dense cake-like texture, which makes it ideal to have with tea or coffee.”

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Fruitcake in America

Immigration then changed what the fruitcake became in America. I grew up with German-style fruitcakes in the Midwest. In Texas one of the largest mail-order fruitcake companies, Collin Street Bakery, delivers cakes their website says are influenced by roots in Wiesbaden, Germany. It’s a great example of how Americans have made fruitcake their own, adding particularly New World ingredients like pecans and tropical tastes like pineapple. By the 1990s cranberries and blueberries began turning up in recipes. And several years ago American Spoon Foods appealed to the cocoa-driven American palate with their chocolate fruitcake.

I used to think fruitcake’s decline owed much to chocolate’s rise in American cooking. But now I realize that the constant refrain of “fresh!” in our contemporary culinary rhetoric might also be a factor. We think now, not later. Planning ahead and saving for the future has gone out of style as much in food as in finance.

The New Renaissance of Fruitcake

But now we are in the midst of another great epistemological shift in all things edible. The canning and preserving movement has been gaining momentum for nearly a decade, telling us to save and steep and macerate and age. And that’s the place where good fruitcake really lives. The once-maligned holiday treat may be making a comeback in part because we are more interested in foods you plan well in advance — foods that need time to really shine.

Like June Taylor’s British-inspired Christmas cake. “Our cake is an excuse to eat boozed-up fruit,” she says. They use four kinds of raisins — Zante raisins for currants, Muscat, Thompson, and Flame — sourced from a local farmer and dried in-house. Then they add in three kinds of candied citrus: Japanese sudachi lemons, Seville oranges, and navel oranges. Bing cherries, Rainier cherries, apricots, nectarines, and tart plums are also added in.

“There are no red and green things,” says Taylor. “The cake is just about bringing the very best together.”

Maria Speck includes a recipe for Just Fruit Holiday Cake in her new “Simply Ancient Grains” cookbook. It’s “inspired by fruit breads my Greek mom used to make,” explains Speck. It’s lightly sweetened and made rich with two kinds raisins, tangy Blenheim apricots, and prunes. Then it’s sharpened with candied orange, citrus zest, and spices.

‘It is spiked with a good glug of Amaretto,” says Speck. “If you feed it with more Amaretto over a few weeks and allow it to mature, it develops intense complexity with intoxicating hints of marzipan.”

However you celebrate your fruitcake this year, it’s worth considering how you’re participating in centuries of global trade and cultural exchange — and even how you’re living it up like royalty. But then go ahead and make your own modern twists for the new millennium.