Most of my childhood Christmas holidays were spent with my paternal grandparents and my large, boisterous clan on that side of the family. For us kids, most of the excitement revolved around waking up Christmas morning to see what Santa had left us then (as if we weren’t greedy enough) opening presents later in the morning. Christmas dinner was usually served around 2:00 pm and featured the eagerly anticipated turkey with cornbread dressing as well as my favorite glazed, baked ham. Having been reared mostly in the Northeast and Central Florida, I was unaccustomed to the country style cooking of the South. It was, shall we say, exotic. My mother, an excellent cook with an adventurous palate, usually prepared what she thought everyone would eat and by “everyone” I mean me and my even pickier younger brother. Christmas dinner green beans cooked just about forever with a piece of salt pork were more than acceptable but giblet gravy? Forget about it! Most alien of all perhaps was the once-a-year appearance of the edible substance known as fruitcake. In my grandmother’s house there were two kinds, “light cake” and “dark cake”, and neither one in any way suggested cake to me. First of all, they were loaf-shaped and bare of embellishment. I knew good and well that a proper cake consisted of two or three round layers heavily frosted. Even worse were the weird red and green pieces studded throughout the cake which I now know were candied cherries. I’m sure I would have liked fruitcake just fine had I deigned to taste it, but there were always cookies and banana pudding both of which settled the dessert question just fine for us persnickety youngsters.
You may already know that Georgia boasts the Fruitcake Capitol of the World, Claxton GA, home of the Claxton Fruitcake Company but did you know that Corsicana TX can make the same claim as it is equally famous for the fruitcakes produced by the Collin Street Bakery? Fruitcake is by no means unique to the U.S. In the Bahamas, dried fruit and nuts are soaked in dark rum for up to 3 months and then more rum is poured on top of the baked cake while it’s still hot. That recipe wouldn’t have passed muster with my grandmother, a strict teetotaler, but everyone might have eaten more fruitcake if it had. Italians eat a highly spiced fruitcake at Christmas time called panforte. In Romania fruitcake goes by the name Cozonac, in Switzerland it’s Birnenbrot, and the people of Trinidad enjoy a boozy confection called Black Cake which is similar to the Bahamanian fruitcake.
If you bake fruitcake for the holidays, you likely already follow a trusted family recipe. If not, you could do worse than picking up a copy of The All-American Christmas Cookbook: family favorites from every state by Georgia Orcutt and John Margolies and baking the “Fabulous Fruitcake.” Inspired by the fruitcake from the Collin Street Bakery (the actual recipe is apparently a closely guarded secret) it contains a wealth of dried fruit, nuts, and Calvados and looks pretty delicious to me. As promised by the title, the book features a holiday recipe from every state in the union (Georgia’s contribution is Cranberry-Pecan Chutney) and features adorable vintage illustrations. If the idea of Caribbean Black Cake appeals, you’ll find recipe in for it in Warm Bread and Honey Cake: home baking from around the world by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra. For a proper British fruitcake, check out Nigella Christmas: food, family, friends, festivities by Nigella Lawson. Lawson presents a really delicious looking “Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake” as well as “Gorgeously Golden Fruitcake” which she describes as “the fruity blonde sister of the brunette temptress” (meaning the chocolate version). Anyway, both look wonderful and well worth baking plus the golden fruitcake is gluten free.
Finally, I can’t leave the subject of cake without mentioning two of my favorite cake-centric books (although fruitcake doesn’t make an appearance in either). One is Vintage Cakes: timeless recipes for cupcakes, flips, rolls, layer, angel, bundt, chiffon, and icebox cakes for today’s sweet tooth by Julie Richardson. This book features beautiful photographs and boasts a truly impressive array of delicious sounding cake recipes. Just reading about such creations as Lovelight Chocolate Chiffon Cake, Blackout Cake, and Watergate Cake with Impeachment Frosting make me want to get out my mixing bowls and beaters right now. Also highly recommended is The Cake Mix Doctor by Anne Byrn. I’d be the first person to admit that I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to mixes and culinary short cuts but Byrn really understands what she’s doing. I know people who swear by this book and always produce cakes both beautiful and delicious. Allow me to recommend the Strawberry Cake with Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting. This spectacular cake is one that my mother pulls out for special occasions and, for a strawberry lover like me, it comes close to cake heaven. Be sure not miss Chocolate from the the Cake Mix Doctor and The Cake Mix Doctor Returns! also by Byrn.
What’s your opinion on fruitcake? Do you have a beloved recipe?