Weird, wonderful (and revolting) facts about fruitcake

fruitcake Photo by gkrphoto/Shutterstock

Fruitcake is one of those things you either love or hate, or are simply mystified by. For some, making fruitcake is an essential part of holiday baking: figuring out a day to bake well in advance, buying and chopping (and chopping and chopping) the ingredients, assembling everything and then tucking the finished product away for a month (or more) to age. (There’s also the added appeal of repeated sips of the alcohol that’s part of most traditional recipes. For quality control, of course.)

Others may not join in the prep, but enjoy a good piece of fruitcake at the holidays: plain, iced, layered with marzipan, or served with a schmear of butter.

For others, though, the traditional combination of nuts, spices, and dried and candied fruit just isn’t appealing. Perhaps they don’t like the density of traditional fruitcake, reckoned as equal to that of mahogany, according to Harper’s Index. Perhaps they’re put off by the traditional method of storing the stuff, which involves soaking cheesecloth in spirits, wrapping it up and leaving it to age. Or maybe they’ve just got a candied fruit phobia.

But whether you love or loathe fruitcake, there are still lots of interesting things to learn about it.

Fruitcake isn’t just cake with fruit in it

Your run-of-the-mill blueberry loaf or apple coffee cake doesn’t count as actual fruitcake. Traditional fruitcake is a dense cake filled with a variety of dried and candied fruit. (Admittedly, there are varying preferences for the ratio of fruit to cake, with many preferring as little cake as possible.) Bottom line: f the fruit ain’t preserved in some way, it ain’t real fruitcake.

The preserved fruit is part of what makes fruitcakes immortal

One of fruitcake’s enduring characteristics is its apparent inability to rot. There’s a seemingly unscathed piece of 106-year-old wedding fruitcake displayed at Grover Cleveland’s birthplace. One Ohio family has kept a piece of fruitcake since 1878, and periodic taste tests indicate it’s still edible. And fruitcake that was found with the 1910 Scott expedition to Antarctica was “almost edible,” according to the scientists who unwrapped it more than a century later.

The dried or candied fruit is what helps keep fruitcake … well, if not exactly fresh, then at least mold-free. Because most of the ingredients are already well preserved, micro-organisms don’t have a chance to grow. All that sugar is a great preservative. Even better if the ingredients are soaked in booze beforehand, as is the tradition with Caribbean versions of fruitcake.

Of course, the traditional method of wrapping the final product in alcohol-soaked cheesecloth doesn’t hurt, either. And if you want to age your fruitcake (this is recommended by some aficionados), you should unwrap it and brush it with booze, brandy or rum, every few weeks.

Since the Middle Ages, fruitcakes have been popping up all over the world

Although the ancient Romans made a kind of fruitcake with pine nuts and barley mash, but fruitcake as we’d recognize it first appeared in the Middle Ages. It got really popular when cheap sugar from North America started infiltrating Europe, making the ingredients far less expensive and the resulting fruitcakes far sweeter. Cakes with dried, sweetened fruit in them can now be found all over the place, from Italy’s candy-like panforte to Germany’s bready stollen to the Caribbean’s booze-soaked black cake. You can find fruitcake in India and New Zealand.

Wedding cakes in England were traditionally fruitcake

If you’re not a fruitcake fan, then check ahead before you eat a piece of wedding cake in the UK. At William and Kate’s 2011 wedding, for example, a vanilla pound cake or a rich devil’s food was nowhere to be seen. Abandoned in favour of a dark, dense fruitcake, thought to be a nod to William’s mother Princess Diana’s wedding cake 30 years earlier. And not only are English wedding cakes fruitcake,  they tend to be frosted with a thick layer of either fondant or marzipan, upping the density of the overall cake by a factor of a zillion.  

A fruitcake has gone into space

A piece of “pineapple fruitcake” went into space with the Apollo 11 mission, but neither Neil Armstrong nor Buzz Aldrin ate, so back it came to earth. You can see it at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where it looks exactly the same as it did in 1969.

December is “National Fruitcake Month”

Given fruitcake’s longevity, though, it seems that every month has the potential to be National Fruitcake Month.

There are two places that claim to be “Fruitcake Capital of the World”

Both Claxton, Georgia,  home of two bakeries that together produce four million pounds of fruitcake a year, and Corsicana, Texas claim the title. Claxton apparently has it painted on its water tower.

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