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The Great Debate: Is the Fruitcake Worth Eating, or Is It Nothing But a Doorstop?

It's the fruitcake time of year, like it or not.
It's the fruitcake time of year, like it or not.
Photo by Matthew Bietz

Ah, fruitcakes. You either love them or you hate them. There are very few in-betweens when it comes to this sweet bread filled with nuts and candied fruit.

Though gifting fruitcakes around the holidays is not as popular as it used to be, the baked good has been a part of people's diets since as early as the Roman Empire. Back then, fruitcakes were made with pomegranate seeds, raisins and nuts mixed into a barley mash and formed into a ring for dessert. Because it had such a long shelf life, Roman soldiers would carry fruitcakes with them onto the battlefields for sustenance. By the Middle Ages, the recipe had evolved to contain preserved fruit, honey and spices, and it was popular among traveling crusaders.

When Europe began aggressively colonizing, in the 16th century, the sugar acquired from tropical colonies and fruits from the Middle East found their way into the mixture. More nuts were also added, and during the Victorian Era bakers started using alcohol in their fruitcakes as well.

In the early 1700s, European leaders considered fruitcake so decadent that it was outlawed for being "sinfully rich." Eventually the English brought it back into fashion as an important part of tea service. Fruitcakes remained popular in Europe and the U.S. through the first half of the 20th century, though it's unclear how they became a holiday staple.

People aren't as enamored with fruitcakes as they once were, but the polarizing holiday treat continues to spark debate this time of year. Where do you stand on the fruitcake spectrum?

A fruitcake from Collin Street Bakery is a wonderful gift during the holidays.
A fruitcake from Collin Street Bakery is a wonderful gift during the holidays.
Photo by Molly Dunn

Pro-fruitcake by Molly Dunn

I'll admit it -- I never liked fruitcake when I was a kid. But that's only because I never ate any "cake" unless it was chocolate. Replacing the word "chocolate" with "fruit" was a big turn-off to me as an adolescent. However, I am also the same child who never came close to eating sour cream, spicy food, salads or guacamole -- all of which I absolutely love today.

Now my palate is more refined and I am proud to say, "I love fruitcake."

Every year for Christmas my mom buys my grandmother a fruitcake from Collin Street Bakery. While the bakery has a variety of fruitcake flavors, she always sticks with the classic -- pieces of pineapple, papaya and cherries, raisins and pecans mixed in a thick cake made with honey, flour and eggs. There's nothing "light" about a fruitcake, which is what I discovered when I decided to give the Christmas treat another try.

Each bite of the thick, sweet and sticky cake is jam-packed with fresh pecans, chewy raisins and intensely sweet candied fruit. For those who don't know, the candy jewels on top of the cake are candied red and green cherries, as well as whole pecans -- it's a super-sweet topping.

What I love most about fruitcake, though, is the fact that the fruit and nuts play such an important role in the overall flavor and structure of the cake. Most of the cake is formed from the pecan and fruit pieces; all of it is bound together by flour, butter, honey and eggs. In fact, Collin Street's fruitcake is 27 percent pecans. It's chewy, sticky and sweet, and gets you in the spirit of the Christmas season.

But if that's not enough for you, enhance the whole fruitcake by soaking it (as well as the fruit and nuts before baking) in alcohol, such as brandy, rum or whiskey. Kid-friendly versions can be soaked in apple juice, pineapple juice or orange juice. Some people enjoy soaking their fruitcake in alcohol for a long period of time by coating it with liquor, then wrapping it with a liquor-soaked cheesecloth, followed by parchment paper. They then place the fruitcake in the refrigerator for as long as four months. More liquor can be added during that waiting period. The result is an outstanding sticky-sweet-moist liquor-soaked fruitcake.

Make French toast out of a slice of fruitcake for a scrumptious breakfast twist on the classic Christmas cake.
Make French toast out of a slice of fruitcake for a scrumptious breakfast twist on the classic Christmas cake.
Photo by Molly Dunn

If liquor-soaked fruitcake isn't your thing (which it should be), then try my idea of making fruitcake French toast. It's absolutely sweet and delightful.

Fruitcake deserves more love and appreciation than it gets around this time of year. Give the classic holiday dessert a chance -- I can guarantee you'll have a change of heart. There's a reason fruitcake has been around since the 1600s.  

I'm sorry, is that food or hardened resin?
I'm sorry, is that food or hardened resin?
Photo courtesy Claxton Fruit Cake

Anti-fruitcake by Kaitlin Steinberg

In the 1970s, comedian Johnny Carson famously stated, "The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other."

If only that were true. If only there was only one fruitcake in the entire world, but alas, there are more. Many, many more. Every year, inevitably, my family receives at least one fruitcake from a well-meaning friend or neighbor. It's never a close friend, of course, because a close friend would know that the loaf of sickeningly sweet bread will just sit on our kitchen table until we've sufficiently given up on not feeling guilty about throwing out a gift and and toss the damn thing in the trash.

Why do I loathe fruitcakes so?

There are a number of reasons. Usually they're dry and crumbly. Some fruitcake companies have managed to perfect -- no, that's not the right word -- arrive at a recipe that stays moist, but by and large, fruitcakes suck all the saliva out of your mouth with their desiccated, spongy texture. Perhaps its because the fruit in a fruitcake has been stripped of all its moisture through the process of preserving it with sugar.

Which brings us to the fruit, if you can call the radioactive-looking red, green and yellow lumps fruit. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the so-called fruit in fruitcakes is actually just gummy candy with fruit flavors, because the chewy bits I've had the misfortune of tasting resemble fruit about as much as SPAM resembles a pork chop. I understand that back in the day preserving fruit in sugar was the only means of having such things year-round. But this was before refrigeration, before international shipping, before, um, we evolved. Whether or not you think we should, the fact is we can get fresh fruit any time of year. So stop candying it.

Good luck is right. This is an actual holiday card, by the way. I'm not the only who's anti-fruitcake.
Good luck is right. This is an actual holiday card, by the way. I'm not the only who's anti-fruitcake.
Photo by Traci Gardner

One thing that used to temper the cloying sweetness of fruitcake was the booze that home bakers often added to the recipe. These days, mass fruitcake producers no longer add alcohol, possibly because they're generally located in the teetotal-ling South. But the alcohol is necessary to counter all the sugar in the candied fruit. Also, if there were any chance I could get a buzz on while eating cake, I might be able to get into fruitcake. But there's not.

I also wouldn't call a fruitcake a cake, come to think of it. It's more like sugary trail mix baked into a loaf. When I think cake, I think light and fluffy, not dense and overwhelming. Plus, last time I checked, cakes aren't supposed to be aged like a fine cheese or wine. Fruitcakes, on the other hand, are. Some true fans refuse to eat a fruitcake until it's sat around and aged a few years. As if letting it get old is really going to help.

Finally, here are some possible alternative uses for fruitcakes (should you receive them this holiday season):

  • Doorstop
  • Bricks for building structures
  • Workout dumbbells
  • Dart board
  • Knife rack
  • Dog chew toy (depending on the "fruit" in it)
  • Boat anchor
  • Bullet proof vest
  • Christmas tree stand

Or you could try the most popular option and just re-gift the damn thing.


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