The Most Maligned of Cakes
Dec 23, 2015 | by Ellen Dial
What comes to mind? A tough, brown brick dotted with weird fruit bits? A doorstop? Cellophane encased nightmares? A last minute Gas ‘n Sip gift, purchased under duress, complete with hideous Christmas-themed tin? Well, ‘tis the season and all that.
For my nutty, fun and warm family – it means tradition. Since the time of the hobble skirt, the women in my fabulous momma’s family have made fruitcake, using great-great Grandmother Vonderheide’s recipe. Purportedly this is the same recipe used over 100 years ago in the Vonderheide bakery – which was located in Terre Haute, IN. Family scandal alludes to the fact that this bakery mysteriously burned to the ground around the time the US entered WWI, there was no insurance and it was never rebuilt. In keeping with tradition and history, a couple baking pans salvaged from the smoldering ruin of the store are still in use!
Scandal aside, fruitcake is kind of a thing for us. I distinctly remember my momma mixing up this mess in a HUGE stock pot – I mean like, industrial sized stock pot. And baking. Baking. Baking. The cloying tang of the overly sweet candied fruit (I especially hated the pineapple!) and a downstairs closet reeking of alcohol – since the dreaded little loaves had to age (or fester, however one chooses to look at it) in bourbon (or rum) soaked clothes forever.
Such a massive undertaking for such an un-loved Christmas sweet….
Massive it is – as we experienced over the Thanksgiving holiday hullabaloo hosted by my wonderful Aunt Teresa and Uncle Joe. It was a celebration of epic proportions, going down in the family archives as a rousing success. Fabulous food, wine and fun! I really am so lucky!
But back to the cake… Let’s take a wintry stroll through fruitcake, shall we? Are you ready to meet the most maligned of cakes?
A Most Fruity Cake | The Treat From and For the Ages
Fruitcake wasn’t always the holiday joke it is now – back in the day, it was a filling and sweet surprise. A welcomed and thoughtful gift. The cake of celebration! Fruitcake = fun cake! Not so much.
Blame the Romans – or the Egyptians, depending on which version of fruitcake history you aspire to. Both these advanced cultures had a type of “fruitcake” – seeds and stuff, mixed with nuts and stuff, mixed with raisins and stuff. Picture a big, chunky energy bar. Perhaps not super yummy, but you’d have energy to get through long temple ceremonies and gladiator battles- plus, it would keep one regular, everyone wins.
Fruitcake, as we know it now, came about in the Middle Ages. Think a dense cake with nuts and dried fruit – it lasted a long time, so it got packed away in saddle bags and such – envision knights in shining armor, the Crusades… The Inquisition? Probably filling, most likely made the warriors think of home and definitely kept them regular, since we all know how travel can mess up one’s schedule.
Fast forward to England! OK. Some genius (I think I read it was a Dutch guy) figured out how to make sticky, sweet preserved fruit. The Brits loved it! Woot! Fruit all year ‘round! So during the 17th and 18th centuries, fruitcake definitely became a thing, in fact, it remains the cake of celebration for the British Royal family – and is the traditional wedding cake cake. Remind me to decline any invites from them in the future.
In the 19th century the ingredients became so costly, only the rich could afford to make this cake (see the nod to the Royal family above), give it as a gift or even serve it. So, if your cook made fruitcake? You were posh. You gave it as a gift? You were posh. You served it at your dinner or tea table? You were posh. It was something special and quite dear..
Enter the age of mass produced food stuffs! This period, some would argue, heralded the steady decline of the most beloved fruitcake. Leaden, dry and all around weird 1-2 pound bricks of fruitcake. Both light and dark. Some with more candied fruit, some with more nuts. Many claiming to be from an old family recipe. Anyone could now eat or give a festive and colorful cake! The two oldest producers of fruitcake in the US are The Collin Street Bakery in Texas and The Claxton Bakery in Georgia, they’ve been doing it since the 1890’s. In fact, maybe they’re still sending out cakes from their original inventory?
Good to know fact – if you’re planning for the Zombie apocalypse, fruitcake is a great treat to put in your bunker! A solid addition right along side the water purifier, 300 D cell batteries, that case of Vienna sausages and your chemical toilet. It’s reputed to last up to 25 years, and could be used as a weapon in a pinch, just sayin’.
Fun fact aside, the fruitcake started it’s downfall. It became a running joke with certain late night talk show hosts, short story writers and even had it’s own super hero, “The Fruit Cake Lady“. Check out the videos on YouTube, they’re hilarious!
It’s a sad state of affairs – regardless, fruitcake remains a tradition in my family. There have been some gaps and dark times when this tradition was cast aside, but it’s currently being
resuscitated by my completely wonderful Aunt Teresa. Much to the chagrin of the current generation.
A Most Fruity Cake | The Great Fruitcake Caper of 2015
The caper backdrop was Aunt Teresa’s beautiful kitchen – warm and inviting, the location of many a good time. Tubs of the ubiquitous candied fruit, along with various bottles of hooch for the festering were brought in from far and wide. Loaf pans, bowls and music were prepped and at the ready..
Coaxed out of our post-Thanksgiving food coma by shame, mass quantities of coffee and leftover pie, along with the Vonderheide recipe – our motley crew of somewhat reluctant bakers was ready to rock and roll!
There was much discussion relating to the recipe itself. Written as it was for fruitcake production on an industrial scale. Dozens of cakes would come out of this deal. Um, what would we DO with all this fruitcake? I mean, who WANTS all this fruitcake? Perhaps we could build a wall….
Fuzzy math and hilarity ensued. OK. We basically winged it. Auntie T’s vintage KitchenAide (presented in the MCM classic minty avocado – mintacado? – green) stand mixer was employed to mix up this thick, sticky and vaguely disgusting dough. The process for using an enormous punch bowl with said mixer was an engineering marvel. Truly, it was. Naturally, lard was added. Another generous dash of vanilla. Did we throw in enough flour? Is it supposed to be this gluey? Would it be tacky if we opened up that bottle of bourbon for the cooks?
The mixer was quickly overwhelmed. The dough weighed a ton and almost broke the wooden spoon I was using! Ack!
With great ceremony, floured fruit chunks were thrown in.
Up go the sleeves and in go the hands! Now we were mixin’ it old school and oh, the humanity! I really, really have no words. It was gooey and the chunks. The CHUNKS. The chunks nearly threw me over the edge, revolting.
Tasting the dough was not quite the ordeal I thought it would be…. Getting past the color, texture and chunks. It tasted OK. So into the lined loaf pans it went – ready to bake until the end of all recorded time.
Now, to be fair, Momma and I left before it was all over. Leaving the de-panning and alcohol soaked muslin wrapping ordeal to our lovely and stalwart team members – so we didn’t get to see or taste the final product. But one can assume it was acceptable and is now safely festering away in it’s dark prison, somewhere in Aunt Teresa’s house. Each little loaf patiently awaiting such time that it will be sprung from it’s boozy hoosegow and given with great pride to the four family members who actually like the stuff, and of course to those who perhaps don’t have as great of an appreciation.
Jokes aside, tradition is tradition. Family is important. And fruitcake is, well, you know…fruitcake.
Postscript – Apparently the cake is a success, momma reported just this past evening that every slice of the cake was consumed at her neighborhood holiday ‘do. Party goers loved it. Making this author question her guests sobriety! Additionally, said cake wasn’t even completely “ripe”, i.e. hadn’t festered long enough. Hmmmmm…
To our dear readers: what cooking/baking traditions do you perform? How do you feel about this most maligned of cakes?
The author would like to thank: the spirit of her great-great grandmother Vonderheide, Teresa Hayworth, Libby Hayworth-Lenne, Mary Burkhart, Hannah & Jacob Lenne, Mason Hayworth, Alice Dial, Joe Hayworth, chowhound.com, Wikipedia.com, smithsonian.com, mentalfloss.com, britishfoodhistory.wordpress.