It begins with the aroma of oranges and clove. It begins with selection and remembrance. It begins and ends with gurgles of brandy. Shrivelled fruits who thought they’d never feel plump again swell with drunkenness surrounded by burly chunks of nuts in the darkest of sugars. All come together under a blanket of marzipan and icing. And cheese. With fruitcake there must always be cheese.
Oh, I can see the look on your face. Fruitcake? You grimace, back away in disgust and horror with a faint trace of “I thought she was alright, but fruitcake…she can’t be serious!” Oh, I am serious people. When it comes to fruitcake I am very serious. Fruitcake is serious.
Shut up, you in the back! You know nothing of fruitcake truth. Now listen and learn; open up your mind to the possibility of fruit plus cake.
To be fair, in America Christmas fruitcake is an object of ridicule: a gelatinous brick of barely recognisable jellied fruit, candy and nuts. It can be useful for propping up one leg of that wobbly card table you dust off from the garage to house extra relatives or for lobbing at the loved one who dared gift with you a tie, but I cannot recommend it as an actual comestible.
I’m sorry Yankees, but we need to face facts: our burgers rock, our delis are a religious experience, our diner breakfasts kick the asses of all other breakfasts, what we can’t do with a chicken wing isn’t worth being done and we understand the necessity of freshly popped popcorn at the movie theatre. But our fruitcakes suck. Really, really suck.
The British, on the other hand, do not have delis, diners or chicken wing themed restaurants (do not get me started about their idea of popcorn) but they know how to do fruitcake. Fruitcakes are serious here. They are enjoyed at Christmas, Easter and are the traditional choice for weddings. The Brits know how to rock dried vine fruits.
I began making traditional English fruitcake my first Christmas in Yorkshire. I researched recipes then created my own version. I fed it brandy as it matured; I lovingly glazed it with apricot jam then smothered it in marzipan and royal icing. Twelve years later, Christmas fruitcakes are a family tradition steeped in ritual. And comedy.
Mister’s favourite “My Wife Did This” anecdote involves my virgin attempt to make homemade marzipan. I might have used the wrong sugar or said the wrong spells over it because the damn stuff would not roll out properly. After assuming minimum safe distance for an hour or two, Mister returned to find little icing sugar footprints throughout the house and most of the attempted marzipan in the bin. The rest stuck to the kitchen ceiling. I swear I have no idea how that happened. I buy marzipan now.
My father was my first fruitcake fan. Thrilled by his adoration, I made him his very own the following Christmas. I soaked the fruit for weeks; I fed the resulting cake for months and decorated it meticulously. When we came home from Christmas Eve Carol Service, we found my aunt’s dog thoroughly enjoying my homemade fruitcake. While my frantic aunt consulted her veterinarian to see what effects brandy might have on her darling Australian Shepherd, I huddled foetally beneath the Christmas tree, clutching the last crumbs of my masterpiece.
Several Christmases later, I made several small fruitcakes to give as gifts to my growing fan base. Worried our cat (memories of my aunt’s dog still stung) might leave footprints in the drying marzipan (again with the marzipan) I stored the cakes in the oven overnight (you can see where this is going). I of course forgot all about them the following evening when I heated the oven to bake lasagne. My resulting screams of horror alerted our neighbours to a domestic trauma. The police officer was politely sympathetic as she watched me dispose of four cake corpses still leaking almond paste pus.
Comedy traumas aside, British fruitcake is a revelation worthy of a revolution: dark, rich and boozy with nary a neon candied lime in sight. This Christmas the time is ripe for a British invasion of fruity/nutty proportions. Cast aside your preconceived notions of fruitcake and embrace the true nature of this glorious Christmas tradition!
for a 7-inch round cake
Combine 2 cups of mixed dried vine fruits (raisins, sultanas, currants), ½ cup candied cherries, 2 tablespoons candied ginger, juice and zest of ½ a lemon, juice and zest of ½ an orange, 1 heap spoonful of whole cloves (be sure to count them out), and 3 generous tablespoons of brandy. Seal in an airtight container and leave to sit anywhere from overnight to a year. Shake the container every once in a while. When you are ready to make the cake, remove the cloves, leaving one for luck. I tend to use 25 cloves for December 25th.
Prepare a 7-inch spring form cake tin by first greasing the bottom and sides. Then line with baking paper, allowing it to stick up over the top by a good few inches. Cream ¾ cup softened butter and 1 cup very dark brown sugar. Add 3 eggs one at a time and beat thoroughly. Add the boozy fruit, making sure you get all that lovely syrup at the bottom. Sift together 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 3 heaping tablespoons of ground almond into a separate bowl. Add to the fruit mixture a little at a time, combining completely. Add 1 cup roughly chopped mixed nuts and stir well. Spoon into the prepared tin and level out the top. The mixture will be very stiff. Bake at 300F for one hour without opening the oven door to peek. After one hour, reduce heat to 250F and bake for another hour or so. The cake will be done when it has stopped “singing”—this is a high whistle sort of sound which it makes during baking. You can also do the old fashioned clean knife in the middle test. Let it cool in the tin, then remove it from its wrappings.
To store, wrap the cake in clean baking paper, then again in foil. Fruitcake should mature for at least a month this way. You will need to “feed” your cake weekly. Poke small holes in the top and dribble 2 tablespoons of brandy into the holes. Let the cake soak it up before you re-wrap it. If you do not want quite such a boozy cake, you can feed it with orange juice. Fruitcake is quite nice as it is, but if you want to go very traditional with your decoration, this youtube clip shows you how to do it. To serve in the Yorkshire way, top a small slice of fruit cake with a generous slab of Wenslydale Cheese.
Make it your own: Instead of brandy, make your cake Irish by using whisky or Caribbean by using rum. You can also leave out the booze altogether and just use orange juice, but where is the fun in that? Try making your own cocktail. One year, I fed the cake alternately with Cherry Brandy, Brandy and Orange Liqueur. Also, instead of decorating it with marzipan and icing you can glue nuts or glacier fruits onto the cake with warmed apricot jam or golden syrup.