by Lynn Kerrigan
I never met a fruitcake I liked, even though my Aunt Mae went to great lengths to bring us this treat every holiday. Every third week in November she'd take the trolley to Broad Street then transfer to the bus that dropped her off at John Wanamaker in downtown Philadelphia. Wanamaker's was the most posh department store in the city. Any item bearing the John Wanamaker label was highly prized—except for its fruitcake.
It arrived in an elegant and beautifully decorated round tin and though my mother served it after dinner along with the desserts she'd prepared, the only person ever to sample it was . . . Aunt Mae.
Perhaps you've received a fruitcake that's become the butt of holiday jokes. Some people keep fruitcake for years, bringing it out each year as a sort of symbol—of what I can't say. The much-maligned fruitcake has been compared to a doorstop or bookend due to its excessive weight. It's often passed from generation to generation becoming a dubious family heirloom. Many people re-wrap fruitcake and pass it along to someone else as a gag.
I suspect fruitcake is a variation of the plumcake whose name may have been Americanized when early English settlers brought the recipe to shore. Plumcake and fruitcake recipes are extremely similar and English plumcake gained the same comical reputation as fruitcake.
Plumcake is still a traditional Christmas food. It was often prepared a year before making its appearance at the holiday table. Plumcake (and fruitcake) is like fine wine—it needs time to allow the full flavor to develop.
Plumcake appears to have evolved from plum pudding. A good plum pudding, whose recipe was a closely guarded family secret, was cooked then allowed to ripen in a cupboard where it grew hard and dry. The older it got, the harder it grew. This rigidity is what prompted "plum pudding jokes" by stand-up comedians playing in Victorian Music Halls.
Plum pudding was steamed prior to serving to make it moist and therefore edible. My theory is that cooks soon learned they could keep the pudding moist and preserve it by soaking it in liqueur. Thus plum pudding became plumcake aka fruitcake.
Whatever the origin of fruitcake it has gotten a particularly bad reputation as something to be shunned or thrown about like a medicine ball. However, a good fruitcake, rich and sweet with molasses or brown sugar along with a cup of afternoon tea is something that must be tried.
The recipes below represent three different fruitcakes—an old recipe that will result in a rich, heavy fruitcake like the one Aunt Mae used to bring to dinner, a modern updated variety—lighter and easy to make using a mix and a no-bake variety which is surprising good. I've also included a recipe for authentic Victorian Plum Cake.
If you really want to create a special treat that delights all ages you may want to bake small silver charms in your fruitcake. This is another English Victorian tradition. The recipient of each charm is blessed in the coming year. A silver coin indicated future wealth. A thimble stood for thrift. A ship meant the charm finder would travel. You may wish to create your own symbols and start a charming family tradition. Don't forget to instruct people to eat their cake carefully so they don't swallow a lucky charm.
Another quaint English tradition is that every one living in the household simultaneously holds onto the wooden spoon as they stir the batter for the pudding or fruitcake. While stirring they make a wish.
More Fruitcake Recipes
Also visit our main Holiday Recipes page
Copyright © 1998, Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.
This page created 1998 and modified February 2007
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