Henry Hong’s Fruitcake
The loaf that dare not speak its name. yep, fuckin’ fruitcake
Published: December 21, 2011
“So, what is up with this fixation of yours with weird food everybody hates?” Been getting that a lot lately, which I guess is a fair question given my history writing in this space (goose, deviled eggs, etc.). Thing is, it’s always laced with an accusatory tone, as if I’m in it just to be a contrarian, and that makes me cool or something. This isn’t true, of course. It just bugs me that too often people seem to have preconceived opinions regarding certain foods, and empiricism doesn’t count for jack. A typical exchange goes something like this:
Me: “What is your opinion of [marginalized food item]?”
Random person: “Blegh, that shit’s disgusting.”
Me: “What about it do you find unpleasant?”
Random person: “I dunno, I’ve never tried it.”
More importantly, I generally like to defend such foods that I also happen to really enjoy eating—spread some joy around, ya know? This is not the case, however, with the holiday season’s most infamous marginalized food item: fruitcake. The few, hazy recollections I have of eating the stuff mirror those of most people I know who’ve actually ever tried it: somehow simultaneously mushy, hard, gummy, and dry, and whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t cake. And then there are those nasty, totally unnatural in every way “candied” bits, transparent, slightly mealy, way-too-green-or-red chunks of something that in no way could’ve been fruit. I personally couldn’t remember much about the actual flavor, except that the “candied fruit” tasted weird and there were walnuts involved, and no kid I know likes walnuts.
If you consider what’s in a fruitcake, there are a million ways to make it, with many nations having their own versions, and even variants specific to regions of the United States. But basically you’re talking about cake bones, i.e., sugar, flour, eggs, milk, and fruit. It seems like one of those things you really have to put effort into to mess up. It’s a traditional special-occasion dish, and such things are usually an especially good thing to eat, and often a pain in the ass to make to boot. A treat. And maybe it once was, but something obviously went wrong somewhere along the way.
Other than reputed suckiness, fruitcakes are also distinguished by their longevity. Former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson is often cited as having made a joke back in the ’80s about there only being one fruitcake in the world that everybody just regifts ad infinitum. Guess you had to be there. Anyway, some believe this to be the moment that changed public perception in the United States regarding fruitcake. I’m not so sure, because while Carson attributed fruitcake’s durability to its heaviness or density, what really keeps your modern American fruitcake from spoiling is preservatives. And how you prevent spoilage is where the difference between good and bad fruitcake lies.
In researching recipes, it became clear that there are two styles of fruitcake: with alcohol and without. The fruitcakes most commonly consumed here in the United States are either store-bought or mail-ordered, and, whether due to cost or regulations, alcohol doesn’t make the cut. This means extending shelf life via artificial preservatives, both in the cake mix and in the candied or otherwise preserved fruits, and through reducing moisture content. Even perhaps the most famous makers of fruitcake, Trappist monks (who incidentally first arrived in the United States via Baltimore), seem to have abandoned their tippling roots by using sulfur dioxide and calcium propionate in their cakes, at least the ones baked at the Holy Cross Abbey in Virginia, the closest Trappist enclave to us here in Maryland.
In most older recipes, and even more so in non-American recipes, there is always a significant amount of alcohol involved, both in the cake batter and as an additive after cooking. Periodic application of alcohol, usually just brushed or drizzled onto the cake, imbues a long shelf life. There are recipes that call for from a few weeks to a few years of booze-soaked aging before the cake is even ready to eat.
I doubt it’s a matter of absorbing more flavor from whatever alcohol you’re using, since eventually you’re bound to hit a tipping point where the cake is “full” and you’re just replacing alcohol that has evaporated. I can see how this may take a while to achieve if you start out with a somewhat dry cake, so why not get as close to this end point as possible right from the jump?
After some digging, the recipe I chose as ideal was one for Jamaican black cake, which was notable because while most recipes call for a couple of tablespoons of booze, this one indicated a full cup of rum or brandy, plus some more for brushing. Also it was one of the simplest recipes. Why’s it gotta be black? Well, the blackness is a product of a coloring agent made from highly caramelized sugar syrup, which I left out simply because I didn’t have any or feel like making it. I further modified the recipe it by using plain old dried fruit, which I reconstituted in—you guessed it—booze. In effect, I made my own “candied” fruit, except I had control over what supplanted the water (in my case rum, brandy, vanilla, and lemon extract). None of my chosen fruits were green, so I threw in some pistachio for that festive look. Result: super dense, but super moist, and really good, I swear! But still not cakey—more like a very rich bread pudding if anything. One thing I did borrow from more Continental recipes is a glaze made from brandy, sugar, and butter, known quite awesomely as “hard sauce.” If I ever have to use a nickname, it shall be Hard Sauce.
I should’ve thought of the Jamaican cake connection sooner, because one Christmas I was lucky enough to get a big slice of rum cake my friend’s Jamaican mom made. And no shit, more than a year later, I found a piece still wrapped in foil way back in the fridge. Upon observing it had no mold and still smelled OK, I tried it, and it tasted as good as new. I plan on saving one slice of my fruitcake in similar time-capsule fashion, and another unrefrigerated but swabbed with liquor now and again. If either are still edible, I will found the Baltimore Fruitcake Last Man Standing Society. Who’s with me?
Equipment: 9” round cake pan (tall) or Bundt cake pan
1 pound dried fruit*
8 oz butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 cups brandy, rum, or bourbon
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup pistachio nutmeats*
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon orange extract
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
* Trader Joe’s has probably the best selection of dried fruits and nuts locally. I used one 8 oz. bag of “Golden Berry Blend,” which has golden raisins, cherries, cranberries, and blueberries, and 8 oz. of dried white peaches, which I cut into small pieces. You could also just use any trail mix, so long as it doesn’t contain M&Ms or the like. I used pistachios simply because they’re my favorite nut and Trader Joe’s carries them already shelled.
The night before you plan on baking, rehydrate the dried fruit in a bowl with 1 cup of liquor and enough water to barely cover. If any of the fruit pieces are large, cut to a suitable size. I also added additional amounts of the above listed extracts and spices to the fruit/liquor mixture, but this is optional. Allow to soak covered in the fridge overnight, stirring once.
Using an electric mixer, cream the sugar and butter in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. You could do this manually, but it’s hard work and takes forever—try to get your hands on an electric mixer, trust me.
In a second bowl, beat together eggs and liquor until well mixed.
If there is a lot of excess liquid remaining with the fruit, drain off. Add the egg mixture, fruit, nuts, extracts, spices, and zest to the creamed butter and combine gently but thoroughly.
Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into the mixture, folding gently as you go, until just combined. Work it as little as possible.
Pour batter into greased cake pan and bake at 350 for 1 1/2 hours. Allow to cool to room temperature and invert onto a plate, then refrigerate overnight before serving.
This cake should keep for at least a few weeks in the fridge. If you want to try your hand at keeping the cake for an extended amount of time, periodically brush the cake with liquor and keep tightly wrapped to keep unwanted flavors from being absorbed while refrigerated.
In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup of liquor (brandy, rum, or bourbon) over low heat. Add 1/2 cup of sugar and mix until dissolved. Add a stick of butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring as you go, until combined into a translucent glaze. Allow to cool before drizzling over fruitcake.
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