I am going to spare you the usual fruitcake jokes (bricks, door stoppers et al) and cut to higher ground. Fruitcakes are deserving of some reverence in the culinary collective, if only due to the fact that they are quite beyond tradition - they hedge on antiquity itself. To follow the trail of how fruitcake came to be is a poor manâ€™s course in the evolution of modern baking.
Fruitcakes go way, way back - to the Crusades, if not before. There is evidence the early Romans made cakes of fruit, nuts and wine and â€˜receiptsâ€™ for Scripture Cake - boldly biblical in name - is another indication of fruitcake legacy. Fruitcakeâ€™s predecessor may well have been something similar in flavor but quite different in form. It was panforte - an item you may recognize this as a gourmet shop item increasingly available at holiday time. Panforte (pronounced pan-a-forteh) originated as a dense, low-slung convection and literally means â€˜strong breadâ€?. (Try biting into some imported panforte, you will see immediately why the name stuck.) Panforte was the granola or trail bar, so to speak, of the Crusaders. Made with citron and cinnamon, as well as the Middle Ageâ€™s beloved honey, spice-laden panforte conveniently traveled well and tasted ambrosial. So much so that it survived not only the Crusades but beyond a few millenniums and today, the sweet Christmas treat is imported from Sienna, Italy where a panforte industry not only exists but thrives.
My bakerâ€™s logic takes this a step further and seems to me that panforte beget fruit puddings or at least are kissing cousins to fruit puddings which in turn were probably the precursors of modern day fruitcake. Fruit puddings, made of similar ingredients (flour, spice, candied fruits) were made stove top - steam cooking pre-dating traditional oven baking. THENâ€¦..another big thing happened, yeast came along and ovens and together, they conspired to transform fruit puddings into fruited breads which got sweeter and fatter and made their way into - datah! fruit cake. Fruit cakes were made at home but as many things were, many, many years ago, brought for baking to the village baker who kindly obliged. Oh - right. Forgot to mention. After yeast came baking powder around 1850, an invention (originally called yeast powder) which was made fruited breads (such as Scottish Bun) into cake - vastly changing the texture, taste, crumb, and concept of fruit bread. What remains is that fruit cakeâ€™s legendary longevity. Claims of 100 year old fruit or wedding fruitcakes abound - tales of those who have nibbled a slice are less rampant.
Fruit cakes stayed ensconced in Britain, Australia and New Zealand but somehow we North American colonialists merely tolerate it. Aside from several references to â€˜Martha Washingtonâ€™s Great Cakeâ€™ - a cholesterol and caloretic wonder of 40 eggs and four pounds of butter, which comes up in several vintage American cookbooks, most prized fruitcake recipes hail from Britain. Aside from this being a palatial issue, to my mind, this lack of respect is entirely due to places like hardware stores and pharamacies, bless â€˜em all, selling less-than-stellar fruitcakes, pretty well killing the notion that fruitcakes can be sheer delight.
The controversy continues with protests that candied fruits are just insufferable, or the evils of marzipan or royal-icing crusted wedding fruitcakes. Not to mention, and this is something more and more people will declare and food writers get het up about: there is simply no more cake in fruitcakeâ€¦it is simply fruit with a tablespoon of spiced up batter holding it together. In any event, I am unashamed to admit that fruitcakes are still adored by we professional bakers â€“ well, I can speak for myself. We see it as a special event that marks our calendar along with Buche Noel (which is the so-wholly Gaelic â€˜take thatâ€™ response of French pastry chefs) - an occasion to go all out and produce the most replete, fruitcake ever - awash in brandy or whiskey, lovely candied fruits and a heady batter of butter, fresh eggs and flour.
Aged fruitcake preparations begin now - and both the pros and home bakers alike, pride themselves on their special fruit and spice mix. In fact, nothing brings out the testosterone in the average baking grandma then asking what constitutes a better fruitcake. Like dark of light fruitcake? With jam or a grated apple or two, white or brown sugar, macerate fruit before or not, brandy, wine, rum or naught, green cherries nor only red, nuts or not, baking powder or none, coat with apricot jam or a overcoat of marzipan or just cheesecloth soaked spirits?
Well. How to please everyone? Easy. Choose a fruitcake from the archives here: a Black Cake or mellow Apricot Brandy Fruitcake, or a classic one.
There is something for all.
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