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.
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: