Tag Archives: fruitcake

Christmas Food-Fruitcake

Sliced English Fruitcake
Image: TheMightyGrog, 18 June 2019 (via Wikimedia Commons)

As a kid, fruitcake was this strange cake that appeared around Christmas and never tasted like much. My mother was not a great baker, so she bought one at a store. Now I had an aunt who made her own fruitcake, and it tasted delicious. However, the prevailing view for most people is that fruitcake was either one of the few things that survived a nuclear holocaust or was regifted so often that only one really existed. And that is a shame since fruitcake, when done right, is actually worthy of a place at the Christmas table.

Fruitcake has a long history and there are many variations of it. Aside from the English version, the Italians have panforte, the Germans stollen, and there is one even in the Caribbean. Fruitcakes could be eaten anytime of the year provided you had the ingredients, but at some time they became more closely associated with Christmas. One reason, perhaps, is that the ingredients were not cheap, so you really had it on special events like Christmas or Easter. And in days before refrigeration, the fruitcake was a way to use nuts and fruits in something that could last a while. Fruitcakes were commonly soaked in alcohol to keep them moist so you could eat them throughout the winter season.

Panforte, traditional italian dessert from Siena.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For a long time, fruitcake was really something the wealthy and nobility ate. However, once many of the ingredients became more readily available (thanks to the opening of trade routes around the world), the cost of many ingredients began to come down, making them more affordable for the middle and working class. Books and illustrations showed fruitcakes and other treats as part of the Christmas feast, so many naturally began to imitate it. Another thing that made it in reach, though not until much later, was the availability for ovens in the home. Many people did not have ovens and either cooked over a hearth fire or a stovetop. If you needed a goose or turkey cooked, you had the local baker cook it for you in their ovens. This is illustrated in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol where Scrooge sees people taking their Christmas goose to the baker to be cooked. And in the book, the arrival of the cooked goose in the Cratchit home meant it was time for the Christmas dinner. Until then, you either just had the traditional Christmas pudding or bought a fruitcake from the local baker.

Fruitcake was very popular, but its downfall came about the same way as home baked bread. Home baked bread was replaced by the large scale producers who sold it grocery stores. Until the advent of sliced bread, you bought the loaf and sliced it at home. Once sliced bread came about, most people bought their bread at the grocery rather than make it at home. Fruitcake fell victim to that as well. The large baking companies started churning out mass produced fruitcakes. Unfortunately, they were dense without much moisture. While convenient, they lacked the deep flavor of homemade ones. Some argue the same occurred to panettone as well. A beautiful cake that is a joy to eat when made by a real bakery. But the boxed ones you see in many stores are dry and crumbly with almost no texture (comparable to sawdust).

Fruitcake though has started to become popular again as people rediscover it. Thanks to celebrity chefs like Alton Brown and specialty producers, the rich but dense and moist cake is popular. And the specialty bakers will surprise you. Years ago, Chuck Williams, who owned Williams-Sonoma, tasted a fruitcake from a monastery in Missouri. When they decided to do this, they got a recipe from world famous chef who once worked for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The recipe is the traditional dark and rich fruitcake that is known and loved in England. That recipe and his advice on producing it, made it possible for that monastery to produce it. Williams realized this could be part of his Christmas catalog and the monks agreed. Fruitcake sales from the Williams-Sonoma catalog skyrocketed as people ordered and tasted the fruitcake. The making of fruitcakes turned into a major source of revenue for the small band of monks and continues to this day. Other religious orders are now selling traditional fruitcakes and other food treats as well. Some make cookies and fudge as well.

So, if you have ever wondered why fruitcake was once so popular, seek out those bakers who make it like it used to be. These are not doorstops, but something you will enjoy eating. Alton Brown likes it for breakfast with mascarpone cheese, but you can put any topping you want (or not). I often use brandy butter I make for the holidays.

Here is the monastery referenced in the above article:

Assumption Abbey Bakery
RR 5 Box 1056,
Ava, MO. 65608

Other places to buy this fruitcake and other treats:

Science Friday Christmas Edition: Preserving Fruits and Nuts Through Fruitcake

Photo by Stu Spivack(Wikimedia Commons via Flickr)
Photo by Stu Spivack(Wikimedia Commons via Flickr)

We are the beneficiaries of wonderful technology that allows us to have produce, nuts, meats, and dairy year round. A trip to your basic grocery store shows the bounty we enjoy thanks to important developments in food technology both in its preparation and storage. In different times, you literally lived by the season. Food storage was limited to cellars, storing in jars, and even buried in the ground. In places with harsh winters, the necessity of food storage was essential to survive. Nuts and fruits would spoil during the winter so people had to come up with creative ways to keep them around longer. Aside from pickling, drying, or canning,baking cakes was also a popular way of doing this. Fruitcakes or variations of what we call it, had been around for a long time. The ancient Egyptians had a version and the Romans had festival cakes that led to panforte. The version most are familiar with is English style.

English style fruitcake is a dense cake often soaked in a liquid, usually alcohol, to keep it moist. Contrary to popular belief, a fruitcake does not last forever but properly taken care of will certainly last during the winter season. Spices were expensive back then so the rich could afford the more luxurious spices while most had to use what they could afford or find locally. Since most homes back then did not have ovens (the rich did of course), most everything was fried, boiled, or steamed. Anything that had dried fruit was called a plum pudding, which traditionally is served at Christmas. Then it evolved from this to the more current version of fruitcake known today. It became associated with the holiday (though it is often consumed at other times of the year as well) as it became a symbol for good luck and other things. It also had a practical use being a source for fruits and nuts during a time when they were not generally available.

Fruitcakes can vary in sizes, shapes, and ingredients. Today most fruitcakes are not that expensive but widely vary in quality. Often the best source are reputable bakers that make them with fresh ingredients and spices. Many of the industrial ones sold in discount stores are cheaply made. Alton Brown noted a telling fact in his examination of fruitcake: that it is the sum of its parts. Does not matter if you use the best and most expensive alcohol if one of your ingredients is dull or too sweet. Most of the industrial fruitcakes tend to be too sweet and earn the moniker of being called doorstops. But there are many bakers that create very fine fruitcakes. The blog Mondo Fruitcake takes a look at them and some of the best come from abbeys or monasteries where a religious order bakes them as income. A long time ago Chuck Williams (of Williams-Sonoma)discovered a fruitcake made by the Assumption Abbey in Ava, Missouri. He liked it so much that he put into the Christmas catalog (others now carry it as well) and increasing their popularity so much they do not advertise anymore. That is how much they sell at Christmas time but they make them year round (they take a break in January from all the baking!). And it points out that well made fruitcakes are still part of the Christmas tradition.

So when you see a fruitcake, remember it comes from a time needing to preserve fruits and nuts during the winter months. And how much has changed for the better with refrigeration and modern storage techniques.

Sunday Musings (Before the Holiday)

[Update 26 Dec-Due to an unexpected high number of shipments from online merchants, both UPS and FEDEX were unable to deliver all packages by Christmas Eve. The result was many did not get presents in time for Christmas. Since those were tendered by the merchant, you need to contact them to get a refund the shipping charge. Amazon has announced that it will be refunding all shipping charges for packages scheduled to be delivered on 24 Dec. Amazon claims it tendered the shipments in time for delivery but UPS claims that volume exceeded capacity.]

wreath*Time to send presents by Post Office or by package delivery services like UPS for Christmas is about up. You will have to pay extra for overnight delivery if you send it on Monday. The Post Office will deliver Priority Mail Express on Christmas day, FedExpress has FedEx SameDay and FedEx SameDay City.

*UPS Stores are convenient but remember they are not UPS but a franchise. Each store is owner operated and part of the franchise UPS Store that used to be Mailboxes Etc. While it offers the same rates as going to the UPS shipping office, if you have a problem with the delivery or have to put a claim in for damage, your shipping contract is with that store and not UPS. The contract called Parcel Shipping Order explicitly states: “We assume no liability for the delivery of parcels accepted for shipment or loss or damage by any cause to the parcels or their contents while in transit.” Any claim you have has limited liability of $100 unless you declare a value and pay extra. But the limitations on liability is that the do not cover items that are sentimental, negotiable instruments, precious metals, and anything forbidden to be sent by UPS. UPS states in its terms and conditions that you have nine months from package delivery or nine months after “in case of failure to make delivery, within nine months after a reasonable time for delivery has elapsed.” You file the claim with the UPS Store you used so save all documentation and they will need to inspect the package and damage caused. They may deny your claim and if so, your only recourse is small claims court. If you try to sue UPS as well as the store owner, UPS will likely get dismissed from the case as the contract is between the store and you, not UPS.

There is a different rule for a getting a refund due to a service failure. UPS guarantees that it will deliver the package(s) to your recipient (the usual exclusions apply-weather, national emergencies etc)in the time frame contracted (regular or express). If they fail to do that, you have 15 calendar days to file a claim with the UPS Store.

If you shipped via UPS directly and you decide to take legal action against them, there is a major change starting 30 Dec 2014. Except for certain actions that would belong in a small claims court, all other legal actions now will be done by arbitration through American Arbitration Association. The terms and conditions in force them waive trial by jury. According to the new rules “Any arbitration under this Agreement will take place on an individual basis; class,mass, consolidated or combined actions or arbitrations or proceeding as a private attorney general are not permitted. Claimant and UPS are each waiving the right to trial by jury. Claimants and UPS are further giving up the ability to participate in a class, mass, consolidated or combined action or arbitration.”

*Reason#152 People Dislike Going To Post Office:It was Friday morning and just after 10:00 a.m. in the San Bruno Post Office. There was a line of about 20-30 people and only two clerks. A third person handled pickups. More people are coming in while I was in line. Then without fanfare one of the clerks closes up and walks away leaving one clerk to handle the entire growing line of people wanting to mail packages, get postage etc. A manager type walks by and he asks for more help. It never comes and by the time I leave (about 20-25 minutes later) no one came out to assist that lone clerk. And the line had grown even longer by then.

*Dogs and antlers do not mix. Bows are better. Your cat though may resent the bow since they already think themselves special.

*Poinsettias do not poison you but make you nauseous if eaten. Keep away from small kids and pets.

*Hot cocoa is wonderful but if you do not want to make it yourself, mixes are the only way to go. Some mixes are just sugar and mild chocolate (like Swiss Miss) that offer no depth. Ghiradelli makes some good cocoa mixes but they are not cheap but you get good flavor. The best ones require you use hot milk (not boiling!) and not water. Labels tell the truth. Usually the first ingredient is sugar followed by cocoa and often chocolate. If cocoa and chocolate appear way down the list of ingredients it means there is very little of it (common in those instant varieties). Those instant versions usually put lots of sugar and “natural flavors” to make you think there is cocoa in it. The worst offenders use artificial ingredients. Ghiradelli’s double chocolate only has five ingredients in it: sugar, cocoa, chocolate, soy lecithin (emulsifier), and vanilla. Starbucks is not bad but too watery for my taste.

*Apple juice or apple cider? Apple juice is clear apple juice in which all the apple bits have been strained out, while apple cider has all those bits of apple from the mashing process still in them. Apple juice is much sweeter than apple cider and cooks often use the cider version for cooking since it is less sweet (and better for cooking). Hot mulled cider is either apple juice or cider heated up with spices for a delicious warm treat. Do not bother with mixes, just get a decent juice or cider and make your own. Most recipes call for cinnamon, cardamon, oranges or other spices to add. Most spices can be wrapped in cheesecloth (tied up with butchers or cooks twine). There are many recipes out there and have fun figuring out what you like in a mulled cider. Just remember never to boil it. You need to heat it up to a simmer and allow the spices to do their job for at least a half hour. You can cheat it a bit by heating up the cider and then reducing to simmer and adding the spices. If you do not use a cheesecloth, you will need to strain your cider before serving.

*Real fruitcake is not a doorstop but a dense, moist cake. It originated as means to preserve fruit during winter and alcohol was often used to keep it moist. Now fruitcakes do not last forever despite what some wags out there claim. They will spoil over time. Unfortunately fruitcake has garnered a bad reputation because of really bad fruitcakes put out by industrial bakers. Those are most definitely doorstops full of nasty ingredients, most of which are artificial. The best ones are made from bakeries, some of which are religious based. In fact many religious orders make fruitcakes for income and you can find many selections at Monastery Greetings . A blog called Mondo Fruitcake offers reviews as well. I usually get one from Assumption Abbey and it is one of the better ones out there. Chuck Williams liked the Assumption Abbey fruitcake that he put it in his catalog years ago. It sells so well there that they do not advertise at all and rely on word of mouth to sell. They make fruitcakes year round so you can get one for Easter (too late for Christmas but some online retailers may still have some).

*Use common sense when shopping at malls or just about anywhere. Never leave anything of any value (digital music players, gps, sunglasses, briefcases, packages, shopping bags full of goods purchases etc) in plain sight in the car. It practically reads break glass and take what you want. Never leave anything, even just small change (I once had someone break into my car for a mere 50 cents!). And two other things you ought to take with you when parking the car in a public area. Take your garage door remote with you. If someone breaks into your car and gets this combined with looking at your auto registration, they learn where you live. And visit you later by opening the garage door and entering your home from there (many robberies have occurred this way in my area). That leads to another tip: take your car registration with you. It is a pain but most states do not require you have it there when you park and leave the car. Otherwise thieves learn where you live (many burglary rings use valet parking services as a means to view such information).

*Professor George Giuliani has penned a book called No More Bullies At The North Pole which asserts that the Rudolph story (both the song and the animated version)is about bullying. He claims the treatment of Rudolph by the other reindeer and Santa are examples of unfair behavior. Lyrics such as this promote, he asserts, this view:

All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
join in any reindeer games.

The animated feature fleshes this out more in depth with how he is rejected and by Santa as well. So he takes off and joins with an elf who wants to be a dentist (rejected by his own as well), and a fanciful character who tries to find gold. There is a nasty creature (the North Pole version of the abominable snowman) and an island of misfit toys, where the rejected toys (due to square tires or other things that are considered production errors in the real world) hang around hoping for a kid to love them. The nasty bumble (as it is called in the animated story) eventually threatens Rudolph’s family and he comes to their aid. Both the bumble and miner seem to die but turn up later quite alive at Santa’s house and workshop. A very bad storm nearly keeps Santa grounded until he Rudolph’s nose and gives him an idea:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say:
“Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

No apology for their bad behavior from the deer or Santa, just a request to help them out. And off they go in the song (the animated story adds now tamed bumble putting a star on the Christmas tree)leading them to celebrate Rudolph as a hero for what he did.

Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you’ll go down in history!

Giuliani, who has doctorate in psychology, believes this song and show display bad things so the book is meant to help educators and parents. Now whether or not the merits of his argument are valid, let us begin at the source. The song Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer was based on a poem by Robert May, an advertising executive, that could be given out by Santa Claus in Montgomery Ward’s department stores in 1939. The goal, of course, is to encourage toy sales. And it did just that! Then in 1949 Gene Autry sang the song composed by Johnny Marks. The song became the number one Christmas song that year selling 1.75 million copies. Other versions and covers exceeded 150 million putting it behind Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. The animated version with Burl Ives (Rankin/Bass 1964) remains popular to this day and regularly shown at Christmas time.

Rudolph has a happy ending, in both the song and Rankin/Bass animation. He becomes a hero and in the animation the misfit toys each find a home thanks to Santa in the end. The problem Giuliani says is “the message to disabled children is we will not accept you as you are, but only if you can do something extraordinary.” I am not convinced that is the message here but I think many kids, past and present, remember times when they were not always accepted for whatever reason. And sometimes you got acceptance by being good at something, helping out at a needed time, or in some cases standing up to a bully and forcing him to back down.

Disabled kids are a different issue. I remember kids who had problems when I was a kid. And I see Giuliani’s point on this. Those kids are almost always, at least as I recall, laughed at and mocked for acting different (I never had anyone confined to a wheelchair). Why? Because they were weird in our eyes and so they were treated differently. Not fair at all I agree. That is why today parents and educators try to make them feel they belong. And kids are told not to make fun of them or call them “retarded.” But I am not convinced this song is directed at those kids. I doubt May, Gene Autry, or Johnny Marks thought it was about bullying either. It was showing someone who looked different but found a way to contribute to the team in the end. And make them all look good. Not unlike the American ideal of someone foreign arriving on the shore, not knowing how to fit in, and does find something that brings praise from those around him.

Except for some Christmas postings, I will not be blogging much this week. I want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and all the best in the New Year.

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Christmas Is Here

Instead of musing about Titanic I decided to offer some thoughts and more about the Christmas season.

Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus: A saint and a fairy tale

Martin Luther, when he rebelled against the Catholic Church, desired to reform Christmas to reflect its true meaning. So he decided that gifts ought to be coming from the Christ child (Christkind in German). The problem was convincing kids and everyone else to accept gifts coming from a baby. So they eventually developed a convenient stand-in, an angel who serves as a gift-giving Christ child that flies around on Christmas Eve leaving presents. The name Christkind stuck and today young female girls are selected to be Christkind in German cities and towns. Dressed in white with glittering gold wings and crown, she makes many public appearances to spread the joy of the season. In Nuremberg the Christkind is usually a 17 year old girl chosen in a city-wide contest serving for two years. The post comes with chauffeur to drive her to the many appearances required in December and afterwords.

Yet Luther was unable to dislodge St. Nicholas, whose feast comes on 6 December, as he was too beloved a figure for many. So German children got the best of both worlds with both St. Nicholas and Christkind. And today St. Nicholas is more popular than ever and not just in Germany. His feast day is celebrated in many countries and usually the beginning of the Christmas season. Some of the renewed popularity comes from the import of another gift-giver: Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a composite figure drawn from several sources. It begins with the real Saint Nicholas but draws upon the British Father Christmas (a figure that went through several changes from pagan, to saintly, then a merry party giver and finally a gift-giver), the Dutch Sinterklaus, the French Pere Noel, and even the Christkind. Some versions, like the French, Dutch, and Swiss, have him accompanied by someone to remind children to be good (or he might take you away in a sack!). With early settlers being English and Dutch, Saint Nicholas was very popular but Sinterklaus was too hard to say and became Santa Claus.

Santa Claus then took on attributes of the Christkind in being able to fly around and hand out toys. Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas (1822) added that he had a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer. He could go up and down chimney by touching his nose. These fairy-tale attributes had add-ons later with him residing at the North Pole and elves making toys. The image of Santa Claus as a jolly fellow with apple cheeks and twinkling eyes came from illustrations in Harper’s Weekly in the late 1800’s. His commercial appeal became apparent to shopkeepers and department stores. And Coca-Cola used him in the 1930’s to advertise during the Christmas season. Santa was completely secularized and turned into a fairy-tale figure. Nothing of his connection to Saint Nicholas remains (except the use of the name St. Nick).

Today when I read that Santa Claus has been removed (because he might offend someone or is considered religious) I laugh. There is nothing religious about Santa Claus. Replacing him with Frosty the Snowman (a character created for an animation) does nothing but shift images with no connection to the importance of the holiday. Which is also why you rarely see images of Santa Claus inside Christian churches. You are more likely to see a rendition of Saint Nicholas as a bishop or illustrations of him handing out gifts to children while wearing his holy office. If there is one good thing to Santa Claus is that we can have Saint Nicholas stand apart. He was a genuinely good man who cared about children and those being harshly treated (he suffered for his faith by being imprisoned). He reflected his faith in Jesus in how he lived. Remembering and honoring the real Saint Nicholas means looking towards the real meaning of Christmas rather than a fairy-tale creation called Santa Claus.

Various Christmas Thoughts
-The Hallmark Channel’s The Christmas Card is destined to become a Christmas classic. A soldier in Afghanistan gets a Christmas card from young woman in a small mountain town in Northern California. While on leave he visits the town and meets the woman and family. In short he falls in love with her but there is a complication: she is engaged. Ed Asner plays the father and one of his best roles in recent years. Rent or buy it: you will like it!

-Dogs with antlers: bad idea!

-I like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” How many Christmas themed songs have a verse like this: “They should never give a license to a man who drives a sleigh and plays with elves.” On the other hand I can do without the Chipmunk Song. Always gets on my nerves.

-I used to get a tabletop Christmas tree from LL Bean. But last year they dropped their supplier and did not have any. I got one from another source (the one that used to supply LL Bean) but this year decided to not get one. The reason? Cost. These decoratives, which are balsam tree parts attached to foam cores, look nice but are very pricey. Shipping is sometimes extra depending upon the source. A step up from a artificial tabletop but a more expensive one. Checking around the area I found that small natural tabletop trees (sans decorations) were available for considerably less. And they are in much better condition than the balsam decorative that often arrives with many needles less than when it began the journey

-Fruitcakes are disliked in this country because the mass produced varieties are terrible. Alton Brown demonstrated on his show Good Eats how to make one yourself and the key is good ingredients. Bad ingredients=bad fruitcake no matter how much booze you add to it. But you can buy good fruitcakes by seeking out good bakers. Some of the best fruitcakes are made by religious orders. The Mondo Fruitcake blog rates many of them. I get a fruitcake every year from the Assumption Abbey in Missouri and never disappointed. Give real fruitcake a chance and taste one of the recommended ones at the blog. But avoid the mass produced ones at all costs. They are almost always overly sweet, rely on cheap ingredients, and truly are doorstops.

Well that wraps it up for this Christmas. I wish everyone here a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2011.