No holiday food is more ridiculed than the fruitcake.
Let’s start with the fruit: the cloyingly sweet, brighter-than-life lumps of green, yellow and red that dare you to guess their identity.
Then, the booze, often so overpowering that it’s all you taste.
Inexplicably, the crumbly dryness. (Maybe that’s what the booze is for.)
Everyone knows there’s a lot of bad fruitcake out there. And that creates a dilemma for Ciji Wagner, chef at Drafting Table near Logan Circle, who has a fruitcake she hopes to put on the menu soon. But will anyone order it?
“That’s my conundrum, figuring out how to convince people that it’s worth getting,” says Wagner, who began with a family recipe and adapted it over the years. She says she’s hoping her reputation — she’s a former pastry chef — will help sell the cake to skeptics.
Skeptics, after all, are legion. YouTube is packed with videos of people destroying fruitcakes in creative ways. A town in Colorado has a yearly fruitcake flinging event. There are fruitcake jokes, which — if you ask fruitcake manufacturers — are at the root of their PR challenge.
Johnny Carson most often gets the blame for fruitcake’s image problem. He famously joked that there’s actually only one fruitcake in the world, which gets passed from household to household. Other comedians riffed on the idea. That was way back in the 1970s, but for Dale Parker, it still stings. He’s the vice president of the company that makes Claxton Fruit Cakes, in Claxton, Ga., where the city water tower reads “Fruitcake Capital of the World.”
“In the ’60s, it was different,” Parker says. “Fruitcake was respected. Then along came some of the comedians, passing jokes. Fruitcake got a bad rap.”
Then again, he adds, “A lot of the comedians who told those jokes, they’re gone now. And we’re still here.”
Even in those dark days of leisure suits and disco, my mother made fruitcakes; it was a project that began weeks before Christmas, heralded by the containers of candied fruit piling up on the kitchen counter. The cakes were doused in brandy, wrapped in brandy-soaked cheesecloth, entombed in earthenware casks and periodically fed more brandy. The grateful recipients — at least they said they were — always raved about the level of alcohol: My, so much of it! I always wondered why they didn’t just pour a glass and save themselves the trouble of chewing all that candied fruit. I helped her make them, but I didn’t like them.
What I consider my fruitcake awakening happened years ago, when I clipped a recipe for Arkansas Fig Fruitcake from a newspaper and baked a few as Christmas presents. No chewy nuggets, no cheesy colors. Just dried fruit and nuts. The grateful recipients — at least they said they were — praised the rich, fruity flavor and the moistness achieved without so much as a drop of brandy. I made the cake for a few years, then forgot about it.
Until this year, when it was time to start thinking about holiday gift baking. The fig fruitcake came to mind, and I wondered whether I could find other worthy recipes that didn’t rely on sugar-injected fruit and buckets of booze.
It turns out I could.
Washington baker and cookbook author Lisa Yockelson captured my attention with her Luxury Cake, a tall, rich and gingery creation with a hint of rum. Southern-cooking doyenne Nathalie Dupree’s latest book features White Fruitcake, the recipe she credits for turning her into a fruitcake believer.
I found an interesting hearty fruitcake made with Guinness stout: a departure from the norm. There’s Ciji Wagner’s cake, made to be aged (but not saturated) in rum or brandy. Maybe not a traditional fruitcake, but chef Peter Brett of Blue Duck Tavern serves an elegant chocolate dessert packed with brandied cherries. Even something for the diehard skeptics: individual creme brulees built on pieces of unwanted (or leftover) fruitcake.
Some tips for bakers: Fruitcakes are not cheap to make, so it makes sense to buy the best ingredients. Start showing up at that fitness center you don’t go to anymore; mixing (and hefting) these cakes takes muscle. When baking, check your cake before the end of the prescribed time; you don’t want it to be dry. And if you absolutely must have a boozier cake, use brandy or rum (or whatever) for soaking the fruit, or as a substitute for other liquids in the recipe, or . . . well, I’m sure you can figure out a way.
And try these recipes. I’ve been giving samples to friends and colleagues, and it turns out they’re grateful to receive fruitcakes like these — at least they said they were.