classic christmas fruitcake

Remember when, a year or two ago, I did that post about breaking the fruitcake barrier? I failed, but ever since fruitcake’s been in the back of my mind. This fall I decided to try again. (I just went back to that post — it was a freakin’ six years ago. SIX YEARS AGO. I thought for sure it was no more than three. Did we tesser through time or something?)

This fall, it was a post by Joe that got me back in the fruitcake game. He put out an alert — a rallying cry to start the fruitcake — and I was like, Oh right. Maybe this time?

The recipe he suggested appeared to have a solid ingredient list — all real fruits and nuts, none of that neon red and green crap — and the method sounded pretty classic: soak fruits and nuts overnight in booze and orange juice. Make cake. Bake. Cure for a couple months, brushing with rum on the regular. So that’s what I did. And it worked!

Or at least I think it did. I mean, it feels like the right thing, but is it? I wasn’t raised with fruitcake — I’m more fruitcake virgin than connoisseur — so how do I know this is actually a quality fruitcake? Are there better ones out there, or is this the end of the road? I know I like this one — a lot — but just because I think it’s good doesn’t make it so. 

And then I realized that my uncertainty might not be all my fault. Fruitcake, by its very nature, is a study in contradictions. 

Solid as a brick but not hard. 
Chewy but not gummy. 
Cakey but not light. 
Rum-soaked but not alcoholic. 
Expensive but not flashy. 

See, it’s not just me. Fruitcake is confusing.  

I gave away two loaves as Christmas gifts, which felt risky. Fruitcake’s a notoriously hard sell. Would anyone else appreciate it?

In her thank-you email, my sister-in-law described it as “a super-dense, moist, deluxe gingerbread loaf.” And when I wrote back asking for her honest opinion, she said, “I liked it more than I expected to! After eating it several days in a row, though (it was a big loaf!), I realized that I’d enjoy it more in small quantities, farther apart. Maybe ’cause it’s pretty dense/intense?” 

And in an email from my mother: “I just cut into the fruitcake. It is good! Wow–figs!”

Not exactly a rave, but not bad either. 

In my house, I’m pretty much the only one who eats it. (My husband likes it but never really thinks to eat it unless I serve it to him.) I often have a slice for breakfast with my coffee. What with all the nuts and fruits, it feels like a real food (and here’s yet another contradiction: it’s less fruitcake and more fruit bread), so I think of it not as a desert but as an honest-to-goodness meal.

Making the fruitcake, I ran into a few hiccups:

Storage space. The recipe calls for storing the cakes in a cool place, or in the fridge. I was afraid all my “cool” places were too warm — and I certainly didn’t want to risk ending up with a bunch of expensive loaves of mold — so I played it safe and used the fridge. Which was a giant space-suck but still doable.

Rum brushing. I worried I was doing it wrong. Was it too much? Were the loaves turning soggy gooey? Would the rum be overpowering? I emailed Joe and he said to persevere. So I did. (Except, because it was such a chore, I grew lax and inconsistent. Eventually, I assigned the task to my older daughter’s to-do list and she became our resident rum brusher of fruitcakes.) 

The wrap. Instructions said to wrap the loaves in cheesecloth and foil. I didn’t have cheesecloth so I used a cotton cloth which, because it was thicker, made me worry that I was rum-soaking the cloths instead of the bread. Also, the cloths turned an unappetizing shade of brown which made me think of wound bandages, mummies, and burial cloths. You’re welcome.

I’m halfway through one loaf (now wrapped in clean plastic), and there’s one more loaf stashed in the back of the fridge still wrapped in its rum-soaked burial cloth.

Since fruitcakes practically last forever, there’s no rush to eat them. I can nibble whenever I want, all winter long.

It’s nice.

Classic Christmas Fruitcake
Adapted from Joe Pastry

The original recipe says to halve the apricots. I bought my dried apricots already diced, so that saved time. The dates were to be left whole and the figs were to be halved, but I quartered all of them. You can use either brandy or rum (and maybe others?). I used rum.

day one: the fruit and nut mixture
2 cups golden raisins
2 cups currants
2 cups dried apricots, chopped
2 cups dried figs, quartered
2 cups pitted dates, quartered
4 cups chopped walnuts
2 cups chopped pecans
½ cup chopped candied ginger
zest of 3 oranges
zest of 3 lemons
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon cloves
1 cup baking molasses (not blackstrap)
2 cups rum (or brandy)
½ cup orange juice

In a large bowl, combine everything down through the spices and toss to mix. Add the molasses, rum, and orange juice and still well. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature for 12 hours or so, or over night.

day two: the cake 
1 pound butter, at room temp
3 cups brown sugar
8 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla 
4 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons salt

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well. Add the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Pour the cake batter over the fruit and nut mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. It will smell like heaven.

Divide the batter between four large (9x5x3) loaf pans that have been buttered and then lined with parchment paper. The loaf pans will be quite full. (I used some of the cake batter for a mini loaf because I was worried they’d overflow, but the cakes didn’t rise much so I probably could’ve gotten all the batter into the four pans.)

Bake the loaves at 275 degrees for two hours. They’ll be golden brown — and an inserted toothpick will come out clean — and your house will smell divine. Allow to cool for ten minutes before turning the loaves out of the pans onto a cooling rack. 

Once completely cooled, brush the loaves all over with rum (or brandy): tops, sides, bottoms. Wrap each loaf in cheesecloth (or a clean, thin cotton cloth) and then in foil. Refrigerate. 

Every three days or so, brush the loaves with rum. Sometimes I brushed the tops. Other times I brushed the bottoms (and then stored them upside down). Give the rum treatment regularly for the first couple weeks (I put “rum the fruitcakes” on my calendar so I wouldn’t forget), and then every 5-7 days for the next couple months.

I’m no longer rumming my cakes, but depending on how long the last one lingers in the fridge, I may end up giving it another brushing or two. I like rum. 

This same time, years previous: moving out, the quotidian (1.8.18), today, marching, our little dustbunnies, what it means, date nut bread, between two worlds, buckwheat apple pancakes, salted dulce de leche ice cream with candied peanuts, what I did.

10 Comments

  • Becky R.

    All of them are real fruitcake, it’s up to you to decide which one you like. In other words, no right or wrong, just follow your taste buds. Experiment using different fruits, nuts, and alcohol in the cake. You may find something you really like more. I am fond using sweet wine in the cakes. I grew up eating fruitcake every holiday season. My mother made them in October, and we didn’t cut them until Christmas. The longer they age, the better they are. If you are soaking it in alcohol, it shouldn’t mold. Ours never have. And you may not like the “mummy wrap”, but it’s the best way to age and preserve your cakes. I have never stored them in the frig. I think that would just dry them out over time. I always store them in an air tight container, like tupperware. My mother taught me to completely wet the cloth, then let it get almost dry before adding any more alcohol. It always works like a charm. I am tempted lately to try a chocolate fruitcake. I never have, but it sounds divine, based on the fruits. OH, and I think eating it toasted for breakfast with some mascarpone smeared on it is the best way to eat fruitcake!

    • Jennifer Jo

      Fabulous tips — thank you!

      A question about the soaking process: when you say that your mother taught you to “completely wet the cloth,” what does that mean? Spraying the cloth-wrapped bread? Literally dunking the cloth in rum?

      As per your suggestions, I’m going to pull the last loaf from the fridge, rum it again, and then keep it in an airtight container at room temp for another month or so, rumming periodically, and see what happens.

      • Becky R.

        I actually wet the cloth with alcohol, wrap the cake with it, then let it dry out slowly. When it is almost dry, I drizzle alcohol on it again. I don’t get the cloth sopping wet, but I dampen it thoroughly. I think spraying the cloth with alcohol when it gets almost dry is a prefect way to proceed. I hope you have good luck with your cakes. If kept moist with an alcohol wrap and stored in a pantry or cabinet, they will last months. The flavor gets richer and deeper with time. I hope you learn to like fruitcake as much as I do.

  • sk

    Okay, I will weigh in. I was being a little bit polite. I do love figs and they provide a measure of justification. But the dates, as baked into this cake, are hard–reminiscent of dried vegetable stalks in the garden. Also, the bread part has a strange mealy quality

    Your father likes the fruitcake but he likes everything. So he doesn’t count.

  • Liz Lockhart

    I make my Christmas cake end of October, feeding with brandy as and when I remember. I stab it with a skewer and just pour a capful over. It’s wrapped in non stick baking paper in an airtight tin. If I have time I invert the cake each time before I stab. I’m a bit slapdash! I marzipan and ice ours for Christmas, Christmas week. Mum brushes hers with sieved warmed apricot preserve, arranges dried fruits and nuts prettily then brushes with more jam. It (the finished cake) lives on the sideboard on a cake stand loosely covered in clingfilm till about now. When I chisel the icing off what’s left and store in a tin. I typically finish it start of February. Any rich fruit cake is fantastic served with a piece of sharp cheese – a good cheddar or similar.

  • Nancy

    Oh, fruitcake! I love it! Our family recipe has been handed down from my Great Aunty Kathleen in England. My grandfather emigrated from England as a young man an only saw his sister once more in his lifetime. Therefore, fruitcake from her recipe featured centre-stage in our Christmas goodies’ repertoire. It was a brandy-soaked one and was delicious! My own family is somewhat meh about it. Their favorite Christmas treat is a sugar cookie made from the 1960’s Joy of Cooking book with butter icing. They like Christmas cake but don’t love it. This year I introduced my 2 year old grand daughter to Christmas cake. I used the brandy in the cake as the alcohol would burn off in cooking but I didn’t brush the cake afterwards. And, you know what? It was still delicious and moist! She absolutely adored it! I knew she would as she LOVES raisins!!! However, we had to get over one hurdle first….. As with most 2 year old’s, when asked if they want something new, they say NO. When I asked her if she wanted Christmas cake ….the predictable NO came….I quickly rephrased it…. and asked her if she’d like raisin cake. Well, she devoured it so fast and has been asking for it all holiday! I finally have someone to pass the family recipe on to!!!

  • Clara

    Nigella Lawson’s recipe for chocolate fruitcake is amazing! Easy, moist, and dense without being heavy. Her fruitcake recipes don’t need to made in advance (although, you can choose to make them in advance as needed and the aging does help the flavor profile). In my family, we tend to eat fruitcake with a hard cheese, cheddar is a nice complement. A nice port or red wine is also usually served alongside. I also wrap fruitcake in the aforementioned cheesecloth but have found that in a pinch, plastic wrap and foil in a tin or Ziploc bag works fine, simply brush the rum or liquor of choice with a pastry brush about once a week (about a tablespoon) until you are ready to eat. A dark, cool place is perfect for storing the fruitcake as the alcohol preserves the cake. Happy eating!

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