Restoring fruitcake's glory

By Patricia West-Barker
For the Taos News
Posted 11/13/19

In the 1960s, Johnny Carson, then host of "The Tonight Show," famously joked, "The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake … There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year."

Properly stored and wrapped in alcohol-soaked linen, fruitcake can indeed remain edible for years. But when did the dense, dark cake become the butt of so many holiday jokes?

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Restoring fruitcake's glory

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In the 1960s, Johnny Carson, then host of "The Tonight Show," famously joked, "The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake … There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year."

Properly stored and wrapped in alcohol-soaked linen, fruitcake can indeed remain edible for years. But when did the dense, dark cake become the butt of so many holiday jokes? Some food historians think fruitcake's fall dates back to the beginning of its mass-production in the early 20th century, when real dried fruits, candied citrus peel and fresh nuts were replaced by neon-bright red and green glacé cherries and brandy or whisky was dropped from the recipe. Inferior fruit that was not presoaked long enough and the lack of liquid contributed by the alcohol left the breadlike cake dry and flavorless rather than rich and moist.

What a comedown for the spicy, fruit-filled loaf that once took pride of place on a holiday table.

"The Oxford Companion to Food" tells us various forms of the cake date back to the Middle Ages, when dried fruit from Portugal and the eastern Mediterranean began to appear in Britain. Dried fruits and nuts were still luxuries when the first recorded recipes for the specialty began appearing in the mid-18th century, so assembling the ingredients and baking the rich, dense cake was reserved for celebrations like weddings or christenings and holidays like Christmas.

Although the contemporary British version, often topped with marzipan and covered with royal icing, is among the best known, variations appear in many other countries and cultures. Wikipedia notes that fruitcake is served year-round in Australia; drenched in rum in the Bahamas; baked in a Bundt pan in Bulgaria, where it is also a year-round treat; incorporates dried figs in Poland; is made for every major holiday in Romania; and becomes a very dense bread made from figs, almonds or walnuts and spices in Spain. Italy boasts three fruitcake variations: panforte, which dates back to 13th century Siena, pandolce and panettone, boxes of which can be found in many United States markets over the holidays.

Could taking fruitcake off the assembly line and back into the home kitchen restore its reputation and introduce it to a new generation of holidaymakers? Possibly. But preparing a proper fruitcake is still labor intensive and expensive and requires advance planning. It can take days to gather and soak the fruit and chop the nuts, and months to "ripen" the cake with regular additions of brandy or whisky.

Mincemeat offers a faster, easier alternative for bringing some of the special flavors of fruitcake to the holiday table. Traditionally a mixture of dried fruits, chopped nuts, apples, suet, spices and lemon juice, vinegar or brandy, mincemeat rarely contains meat these days. By the 19th century, suet -- a hard animal fat -- had replaced meat in both the New and Old Worlds.

While you can make your own from scratch, prepared mincemeat in jars and boxes begins showing up in supermarkets about this time of year. Check the pie and baking sections or holiday food displays - it's shelf stable and can be ordered online if you can't find it locally.

Borden's ready-to-use None Such brand, which has been around since 1885, contains rai-sins, several forms of sugar, apples and apple juice, dried citrus and distilled vinegar. It also harkens back to mincemeat's origins by incorporating cooked beef rather than suet. Crosse & Blackwell, a British food company doing business since 1706, also makes a good mincemeat composed of apples, sugar, raisins, distilled vinegar, orange peel and juice, spices and tapioca syrup -- no beef or suet for vegetarians. Either will work well in this recipe.

MINCEMEAT BARS

(Makes 24 squares)

2 cups quick-cooking rolled oats

2 cups sifted flour

1¾ cups firmly packed brown sugar

1½ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup butter cut into small cubes plus more for greasing the pan

1 (29-ounce) jar mincemeat (about 3 cups)

½ cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan.

Combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, salt and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl or food processor. Cut in the butter until the mixture forms fine crumbs.

Pat two-thirds of the mixture into the bottom of the buttered pan. Spoon the mincemeat evenly over the top. Fold the chopped nuts into the remaining oat-flour mixture and sprinkle over the mincemeat.

Bake for 60-65 minutes. Cool in pan before cutting into squares.

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