I woke up this morning, raced to the lighted, decorated tree and, once again, discovered that Santa had failed to bring me a fruitcake. I love those things. And considering how many people proclaim they despise them, you’d think Santa or anybody else in my circle could spare at least one.
I even wrote one of my favorite columns about loving fruitcake way back when I was food editor of the Houston Chronicle, receiving just about as much mail (yes, ink on paper in stamped envelopes) after that year’s Christmas as Santa had received before it. My favorite part of the column was the assertion there were only five or six fruitcakes in existence, each one tirelessly regifted.
I haven’t heard of any fruitcake companies going bankrupt lately – not the beloved Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana or the Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Ga. But by all anecdotal evidence, they’ve got to be suffering. They probably would be bankrupt if they didn’t derive a decent chunk of their revenue from people during the holidays sending fruitcakes to somebody else.
It’s a safe statement that the American notion of fruitcake arrived on our shores with the original British colonists – coming from England, not usually considered cause for culinary optimism. Christmas in England was the cold season for making and gifting a host of similar baked goods involving fresh, dried or candied fruit, most of them resembling plum pudding.
This “Christmas pudding,” mentioned by Dickins in his iconic “ghost story of Christmas,” was dark and heavy and sweet and unrelentingly boozy. Most of those characteristics found their way into American fruitcake. The original was quite welcome, based on records of the Founding Fathers imbibing beer, ale, wine, whiskey and a large collection of cordials, sometimes together, all of which made their way in via seaports like Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
Many fruitcakes still incorporate booze, and many families have at least one loony old aunt whose baked goods are known and feared for delivering a knockout punch. As among the Puritans, however, many parts of the Deep South love (or used to love) fruitcake to distraction – as long as alcohol didn’t fly in the face of their bible Christianity. What the South often left out in booze, it more than made up for in pecans. In many areas, these were the cheapest nuts in the neighborhood. To this day, the best-known mail-order fruitcake companies are in Texas, Georgia and Mississippi.
For all the Christmas traditions linking America to England, fruitcake has a much longer history than that. Most historians believe it was first crafted by the ancient Egyptians, even placed withing the tombs of pharaohs to feed them during their long journey to the afterlife. The Romans embraced it a bit later on.
As with many foods associated with ancient Rome, part of the fruitcake’s charm was its sheer longevity. It was bound up in so much sugar and alcohol, the Roman legions could carry these cakes on long marches to conquer foreign lands. In these coming days after Christmas, I imagine we could take fruitcake with us too.
PEACHY WINTER FRUITCAKE
Yes, we know better than most that peaches are a beloved “summertime thing.” But while our peaches are logging the necessary “chill hours” to make blossoms in the spring, we just might be making this delicious winter fruitcake in our kitchen. The peaches come from preserves, as do a few more pecans and the perfect hint of amaretto.
2 cups chopped dates
2 cups chopped pecans
1 cup raisins
1 cup halved maraschino cherries, with syrup
1 jar Fischer & Wieser’s Amaretto Peach Pecan Preserves
2 sticks butter, softened
2 cups brown sugar
1 cup cocoa powder, for color
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup brandy
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In a pan, heat the dates with the pecans, raisins, cherries and about 2/3 of the preserves, splashing in enough of the syrup until every piece is moistened. Cover the pot for 1 hour. With an electric mixture, beat the butter with the brown sugar and cocoa powder until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in the cinnamon and baking powder into the flour, then beat this into the butter-brown sugar mixture in 4-5 batches. Pour into 2 loaf pans generously coated with vegetable spray. Bake until a cake tested inserted in the center comes out clean, about 2 ¼ hours. Let cool in pans or remove carefully after 1 minutes. Heat the remaining preserves with the brandy and drizzle over the cakes to moisten. Let cool completely. Makes 2 fruitcakes.