Old. That’s one word that comes to mind when people think of fruitcakes. Hard. That’s another. Yet, at one time, the fruitcake was a treasured meal or gift.
Fruitcake recipes in the United States reflect our melting pot, there are variations coming from the UK, Rome and even the Caribbean. However, it seems as though you can blame fruitcakes (largely) on the British. Fruitcakes were so popular in 18th century England as to be deemed “sinfully rich” and appropriate only for Christmas, Easter, weddings and other special occasions. Despite the law, no proper Victorian tea was complete without one. It seems likely that it was during this time that brandy or liquor was added since it would also keep away the mold. There is even a rumor that Queen Victoria once waited an entire year before chowing on HER fruitcake, by doing so, she was the very model of restraint. Can you imagine, if all you had to do was forgo a fruitcake for a year to show restraint?
While the British made our modern day fruitcake “popular”, it’s actual origins are even older than that fruitcake you had last Christmas. Egyptians made a bread out of fruits and placed in tombs for consumption in the afterlife, assuming they would last through eternity, obviously. The Romans carried with them similar types of well preserved bread, as did the Crusaders, again, knowing it wouldn’t spoil. For areas where fruits and nuts were abundance, a fruitcake was just easy to whip up. For northern European countries, where fruit was a luxury in winter months, a well preserved fruitcake was a welcome treat. Today, its considered easier to just eat canned fruits, although I personally think fruit soaking in sugared juice stored in aluminum is even more appalling.
Today’s fruitcake is defined by having just enough batter to bind together the fruits and nuts. There are wild stories about fruitcakes lasting many, many years, its hard to know how much of this is folklore. Most likely, the length of time a fruitcake is stored depends on its ingredients and how it is cared for in the process. The Joy of Cooking has a recipe for fruitcake, and it can last up to 6 months in a refrigerator. They recommend wrapping in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. For some reason, that just sounds awful, I think I’d prefer the second recommendation, wrapping the cake in brandy-soaked linens or cheesecloth. Joy of Cooking recommends storing it in a plastic bag. However, I have seen recipes that suggest leaving the cakes in the baking tin, covered and regularly adding more liquor throughout the storage period, that sounds like a much better option.
If the history of fruitcake isn’t enough to get you jazzed – just remember my mantra: any food soaked in liquor is a friend of mine.