The holiday treat everyone loves to hate.
Fruitcake gets a bad reputation. Even Edward Gorey can’t find anything nice to say about it.
And I can see why. Who wants to eat something packed with Day-Glo green glace cherries, something that’s dense as a brick, something that’s been marinating in alcohol in the dark for two weeks? Even Alton Brown’s fruitcake recipe for Food Network recommends letting it sit for fourteen days, preserved only by an occasional spritz of brandy. It all reminds me a bit too much of that third-grade science fair project where some of the pea plants are grown in the dark, some in the light, and some with strains of classical music in the background.
Fruitcake has been reworked before. Harry & David, the company famous for its fruit baskets, has a “fruitcake confection” that was a hot seller during the two holiday seasons that I worked the phones in the order-entry department. But I have a recipe that tops anything I hawked to phone customers. My grandmother’s recipe, which was her mother’s recipe, isn’t so much a reworking as an original. It’s nothing like traditional fruitcake – in fact, with its notable lack of bright red and green candied fruit, it reminds me more of a yeastless, molasses-y panettone than a typical cake. It would never be the punchline of that Christmas joke about the cake that gets regifted every year for a decade.
My grandmother mailed me the actual recipe card for “Old-Fashioned Dark Fruitcake,” filled with faded, spidery handwriting, that her mother had used. Like a lot of old recipes, it’s short on specifics: a list of ingredients, some with measurements and some without, and a notable lack of clear directions. “Walnuts, pecans, candied fruit, currants, walnut meats – some of each” is all that’s written about the mix-ins for the cake. On the back of the card, notes like “Put fruit with wine overnight” are scrawled in the margins.
The original fruitcake, as made by my great-grandmother, was baked in empty tin cans lined with wax paper. I chose a mini bundt cake pan, because I wanted to halve the recipe, and I decided – pretty arbitrarily – that I’d toss in one cup of assorted nuts and one cup of dried fruit. (The candied fruit, however, would have to go altogether.) I also added a bourbon glaze, for no other reason than to add some visual interest to an otherwise dull-looking brown cake. (My mini bundt pan does not have the prettiest details, which doesn’t help.)
The fruitcake that emerged from my oven may not have been an exact replica of my grandmother’s, but it turned out pretty well . . . for a fruitcake. Even my official taste tasters/parents, who weren’t overly enthusiastic about the enterprise to begin with, liked this cake. My grandmother’s recipe is not getting dropped down any hole in the ice, thanks.