Forget what you know about fruitcake

Fruitcake is enjoyed all year long in the United Kingdom and Europe, but is usually only consumed at Christmastime in the United States. To add color to the cake, Amanda Fraser covers it in fondant and decorates with Christmas-themed fondant. Photo courtesy of Dunmore Caterers
Fruitcake is enjoyed all year long in the United Kingdom and Europe, but is usually only consumed at Christmastime in the United States. To add color to the cake, Amanda Fraser covers it in fondant and decorates with Christmas-themed fondant. Photo courtesy of Dunmore Caterers

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

In most instances, the mention of fruitcake is met with a wary look or something worse, but that reaction is found only in the United States.

The fruitcake we know, and love to hate, is nothing like the original cake from the United Kingdom and European countries.
For Dunmore residents and caterers Amanda and Kevin Fraser – who moved to the U.S. from South Africa – fruitcake was and still is a tasty and enjoyable treat.

“We eat it year-round,” Amanda said. “Any wedding cake or birthday cake or christening cake will be [fruitcake] with marzipan and fondant. Then for Sunday dessert, you slice little loaves, put hot custard on it and eat it.”

Fruitcake originated in ancient Rome and featured pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins mixed in a barley mash. The treat soon spread and evolved, with countries adding their own local fruits and flavors to the mix.

The main ingredients include dried fruits, glazed fruits, citrus peels and either brandy, rum or sherry. Because the cake does not have a lot of liquid ingredients, the alcohol is what keeps the cake moist, as well as preserving it.

“What we used to do in South Africa, if I’d kept fruitcake long-term, I’d unwrap the foil and sprinkle brandy on it once every two weeks and wrap it back up,” Amanda said. “If it was iced, what you do is take an insulin syringe and inject brandy into the cake.”

In the early 1900s, fruitcake was preserved with brandy by wrapping it in cheesecloth and soaking it in a bucket.

The fruitcake available in the U.S. around Christmastime has only basic similarities with “real fruitcake,” Amanda said.

“What you have here, it’s an insult to fruitcake,” she said. “That’s what I always tell people. Because fruitcake has got such a bad reputation, people joke about it. We don’t joke about it. I always tell people, ‘don’t knock this until you’ve tried it, even if you hate fruitcake, because it’s nothing like you’re used to.’”

When she makes fruitcake, Amanda starts with a mixture of dried fruit, butter, sugar and brandy.

“A lot of the European recipes – each country tweaks it to their taste – the main ingredient is always dried fruit,” she said. “We use this combination – a variety of seven different raisins: yellow raisins, dark raisins, currents, sultanas, and then dried fruit, orange peel, lemon peel or lime peel. Then you add your glazed cherries. What we do in South Africa, because there is so little liquid in this, we add chopped dates right at the end when you start mixing it because dates retain a lot of moisture, so that makes it moister cake.”

Amanda usually makes a large batch of fruitcakes at one time, so she uses a lot of ingredients.

“The way I was taught, you take your fruit, except your dates, and you melt a pound of butter in a heavy bottom pan,” she explained. “Then, I add sugar – half white, half brown sugar – then I add my fruit. The only liquid that goes in there other than the melted butter is a good dose of brandy depending on how much fruit you are doing.”

Amanda lets the mixture boil down slowly, then adds vanilla, and lets the mixture cool overnight.

“The taste of fruitcake, and people don’t realize this, is vanilla, brandy, butter and caramel or butterscotch flavor,” she said. “It just gives it that extra something nobody can place.”

After the mixture is cool, Amanda adds baking soda, all-purpose flour and eggs to bind everything together.

“Then you put it in a pan with three layers of brown baking paper and you bake it for half-an-hour at the higher temperature – 350, 375 – just so it can crust over and get the rising agents acting. Then you turn it down and halfway through, you can take the top paper off and just bake it until it’s done,” she said.

It can take up to four hours to properly bake fruitcake, so Amanda said it’s good to check the process often.

“You don’t want to overbake it,” she said. “That’s why if it gets to two-and-a-half hours and I taste it, the tester will be damp because of all the fruit that’s in there. If there’s still dough, you know it’s not fully cooked. I like using as a tester – for any cake, bread, fruitcake – a piece of spaghetti because if it goes limp, you know there’s too much liquid in there.”

Once the fruitcake is baked, Amanda said it is important to “absolutely douse it with brandy.” For those who are not fans of alcohol, Amanda says all the alcohol burns off by the time the fruitcake is cooled and ready to eat.

“The thing is so piping hot, the alcohol burns off,” she said. “Also, the brandy that’s in the mix, the alcohol is gone. It’s the taste that’s there.”

Amanda lets the fruitcake cool for a day before serving it or decorating it with marzipan and fondant.

As a baker and cake decorator, Amanda has made her fair share of fruitcakes for weddings, birthdays and other celebrations.

In the United Kingdom and European countries, all wedding cakes are fruitcake and hold many traditions within them.

“When it’s made as a wedding cake, the whole cake is cake, but there might also be a dummy cake on the bottom tier,” Amanda said. “The two side cakes to the big cake are there because there’s specific occasions for each of these cakes. The side cakes normally go to the bride’s parents and the groom’s parents.”

Unlike the lavish wedding cakes made popular in the U.S., wedding cakes in South Africa were only a few tiers with side cakes.
Holding up the cakes was the bottom tier “dummy cake” which was made of wood and was hollow. Inside were slices of cake for the guests.

“There’s a little door in the back of this dummy cake and all these pieces are hidden inside,” Amanda said. “So they pose for the picture as if they’re cutting the cake and then normally, the flower girl or somebody will get all these pieces in a basket and go around to each guest, and hand them their piece of cake.

“Nine times out of ten, they won’t eat it because there’s also a story that if you are single and you put that [cake]under your pillow the night of the wedding, you will dream of who you’re going to marry,” she continued. “It’s a little folklore to it.”

While fruitcake continues to be a year-round treat enjoyed in the UK and Europe, it remains somewhat of a gag gift in America.

“Everybody’s got their little tradition,” Amanda said.

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