The following is a guest blog post by Rebecca Sharpless, author of Grain and Fire: A History of Baking in the American South, which is available now everywhere books are sold.
This year, I decided to make a fruitcake. Only a few people confess to actually liking fruitcake. Its density and the frequent use of a bitter fruit called citron make them suspicious. The most stinging indictment of fruitcake came in 1989 from Johnny Carson, who showed it as indestructible even under atomic attack.
But, for more than half a millennium, fruitcake has persisted—I mean as a treat, not as an individual cake. These days, most people buy theirs. I live about eighty miles from the famous Collin Street Bakery, in Corsicana, Texas, which has been selling fruitcakes since 1896. Nobody I know likes it much, although my cousin Carolyn suggests that buying it in October and soaking it in bourbon for a couple of months improves everything. The company certainly sells a lot of them, though, starting at $36 for a two-pound ring with pecans, cherries, pineapple, papaya, raisins, and orange peel. Other vendors abound on the internet, with the toniest topping out at maybe $50 for a two-pound cake. A decorative tin can set you back an extra $3. With or without a tin, fruitcakes ship beautifully and have been sold by mail order for more than a century
But I’ve just written a book on baking, and I’ve learned a lot about fruitcake, so I thought it was time that I tried my hand at a homemade version.
Fruitcake has European origins, easily traceable to the English “plumb” cake, filled with dried fruit and candied citrus, dense, heavy, and requiring long baking times. It came to America with seventeenth-century English colonists. The household book of Frances Culpeper Berkeley Ludwell, wife of the governor of Virginia, had, for example, a recipe for “Excellent Cake” made with currants (a European form of raisin) and candied orange, lemon, and citron peel, seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, mace, rose water (water in which rose petals had been steeped), and lemon juice. After baking it was soaked with ale and sack, a sweet white wine. Sounds familiar, yes?
Plumb cake appeared in the earliest American cookbooks. The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith, written in England but published in Williamsburg in 1742, offered it with almonds, citron, lemon peel, orange peel, and sack, while the recipe in Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery (considered the first truly American cookbook) was simpler, using currants and raisins, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon but missing the citrus. By the time that Philadelphia cooking maven Eliza Leslie published Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats in 1828, she was calling it “black cake or plum cake.” (I haven’t been able to trace the origins of the term “black cake,” alas. It apparently dates to the early nineteenth century and almost surely refers to the use of brown sugar and molasses as sweeteners.) Her formula contained both raisins and currants as well as citron, seasoned with mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, and rose water, mixed with wine and brandy. Leslie recommended baking in a commercial-grade “baker’s oven,” and even then it had to cook for four or five hours.
Jokes aside, because the fruit is dried and alcohol aids preservation, fruitcake actually can last a long time. It was the favored wedding cake in the US until the early twentieth century. Wedding guests took slices home with them, and newlyweds’ families shipped pieces to distant friends. Eliza Middleton Fisher’s cake took ten months to arrive in Philadelphia from her Charleston home in 1840, but she deemed it “still in sufficiently good preservation to be sent round” as gifts to her new acquaintances.
It was the favored wedding cake in the US until the early twentieth century.
Undoubtedly, many domestic workers and enslaved women made fruitcakes for others. Betsey Cole and Laura McCrary, enslaved in Georgia, established their reputations with the quality of their cakes. Given the amount of labor involved, it’s small wonder that urban housewives began purchasing fruitcakes from commercial bakeries in the early nineteenth century. But they could also buy from individuals or organizations. The women of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in McKinney, Texas, began making and selling fruitcake in 1920 to fund projects at the church. In their peak years during the 1960s, they sold eight thousand pounds of cake annually.
So to my fruitcake. The process has basically six steps: finding the recipe, gathering the ingredients, preparing the ingredients, mixing the cake, baking the cake, and aging it. I knew I wanted to stay away from candied fruit, so I quickly settled on Ivy Odom’s “Really Good Fruitcake” recipe from the Southern Living website. A visit to the Central Market website collected the twenty-two ingredients: dried pineapple, figs, apples, and peaches (I left out the persimmons); golden raisins, a cinnamon stick, bourbon, brandy, flour, baking powder, kosher salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, light brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, a Honey Crisp apple, lemon zest, orange zest, orange juice, maraschino cherries (I balked at the Luxardo brand that she specified because they’re $25 a jar!), and pecans. The fruit and shelled pecans weren’t cheap (even in this pecan-growing region, they’re going for at least $9 a pound), but the alcohol was by far the most expensive ingredient, partly because I have been using it rather liberally. (Some recipes specify only a few tablespoons. Hm.)
Once home with my treasures, I set about chopping the dried fruit. With my handy kitchen shears (not a knife) and a hefty amount of Zen, the process went easily except for the pineapple, which has the toughness of leather. The chopped ingredients all got an overnight soak in the booze, and I ate the extra figs and peaches. The next day, I assembled the cakes and baked them in two loaf pans. With all due respect to Emma Jane Christian, I didn’t think mixing was all that difficult. And out they came, after only 75 minutes, fragrant and golden.
The cakes are in their third week in the fridge now and have been doused with Maker’s Mark three times. I taste them each time they get soaked and rewrapped. I can’t say that I love them yet, but they are good. Come Christmas, we’ll see what people think. Maybe next year I’ll try a candied fruit version—perhaps the one by Lucile Plowden Harvey that the Tampa Tribune published annually for fifty-nine years.
I wish the commercial fruitcake bakeries well, but I think I’m done with them. And with the right amount of Zen (or Zin, perhaps), you can be as well.
Rebecca Sharpless is professor of history at Texas Christian University. She is the author of several books, including, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865–1960.