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Don’t Buy the Hype: Why You Should Try Real Fruitcake

Johnny Carson once said, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.” Folks love to poke fun at this old-time Christmas classic. You see it in movies and on TV. Heck, there are even hilarious memes floating around the internet about this seemingly indestructible confection, but what actually is real fruitcake? Where did it come from? The history of fruitcakes is long. Believe it or not, the fruitcake has existed in one form or another since Roman times. Read on to learn more about this traditional, sweet dessert and how it’s become such a staple in our holiday traditions.

Fresh baked real fruitcake on a wood background.

Real Fruitcake: A History

With a concentrated compound of fruits and nuts and just enough rich cake to hold them together, real fruitcake is one of the heaviest baked goods out there. (Fruitcake critics may even say it can double as a doorstop!) It’s also one of the few baked goods that rival the shelf life of a Twinkie. But naysayers aside, an abundance of people still consume enough of this dense dessert to make it a $100 million per year business. A business that, oddly enough, began as a Roman energy bar. 

In Ancient Rome, it was called satura. A small cake that had pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, raisins, barley mash, and honeyed wine in it was perfect to sustain their troops in battle. It was full of healthy carbs and beneficial fats and lasted long enough to fortify a soldier through a lengthy skirmish. 

During the Middle Age, dried fruits became more available to western Europeans. Various versions of the fruitcake we know today emerged, such as panforte and panettone from Italy and Germany’s powdered sugar-coated stollen. The British form, “plum porridge,” was more liquid than solid, and it contained meat, wine, sherry, fruit juices, sugar, and several preserved fruits. 

Over the years, the recipe had been altered. Meat was eliminated, and fruit was added to resemble what became known as “plum pudding” (more a plum cake than what Americans would know as a pudding), or “figgy pudding,” which we all demand while singing, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The popular Christmas carol dates back to the 19th century when English nobles in Victorian England would feed the poor carolers with a slice of this dessert. This is most likely how the fruitcake became synonymous with Christmas.

Christmas fruitcake with sugar icing and candied fruits

The 100-Year-Old Fruitcake

Would you eat a 100-year-old fruit cake?

It may be a little-known fact, but fruitcakes are usually made a few months in advance to let them age. Fruitcake connoisseurs know this traditional dessert needs to sit around a while to allow the flavors to diffuse and ripen. But there’s quite a difference between a few months and 100 years!

Conservators working in Cape Adare, Antarctica, recently found a Huntley & Palmer’s brand tin containing a fruitcake that probably dates back to the Terra Nova expedition of 1910–13. Although its tin was a little rusty, apparently, the cake itself seemed to be in near-perfect condition.

I’m sure you’re saying to yourself, how is it possible that a cake could be perfectly fine after so many years? So, what is it about this collection of fruit, eggs, and flour that allows fruit cakes to last such a long time? 

First, a science lesson. 

There are several reasons foods go bad. Different foods rot in different ways — proteins turn putrid and green, carbohydrates ferment, fats grow rancid and sour. One of the leading culprits to this phenomenon is microbes. 

So, what are microbes?

Microbes are microscopic organisms that grow and multiply in food. Bacteria, yeast, and mold can grow on the surface of food and penetrate deep within, depending on the type of food. This is why it’s usually ok to just hack the moldy bit off a piece of hard cheese, but once it appears on a single slice of bread, it’s best to discard the whole loaf.

Oxygen and moisture also provide enticing habitats for the microbes, amplifying their growth. Oxygen reacts with chemicals in the food to cause oxidation or helps drive other chemical reactions involving enzymes within the food.

Modern methods of food storage and preservation keep our food fresher longer. Refrigerating and freezing food slows down the growth of bacteria, in addition to the added chemicals meant to suppress the oxidation and enzyme-driven reactions within the food. Age-old preservatives like salt, sugar, vinegar, and alcohol have been used to preserve our food for a long time. 

This brings us back to our 100-year-old fruitcake.

Fruitcakes are a prime example of food preservation methods. For starters, the fruits and nuts inside are dry, so moisture that would otherwise support the growth of microbes has already been removed. Sugar also helps to suck up moisture. Alcohol is another crucial factor. Bakers often wrap fruitcake in a liquor-soaked cloth (usually brandy or rum), which helps prevent mold from growing on the surface. 

As for this cake, in particular, the critical element is the Arctic cold. This cake had pretty much been sitting in nature’s freezer for a century. However, it hadn’t entirely withstood the test of time. Reports stated that the cake offered an ever so slight foul smell, suggesting that the fats in the cake may have gone rancid.

So what will the cake actually taste like after 100 years? While a few months — or even a couple of years — is a standard to enhance the flavors in a fruit cake, 100 might be pushing the envelope. But there’s only one way to find out. Would you eat it?

Holiday Fruitcake with cranberries and powdered sugar. Surrounded by cinnamon sticks, a glass of tea, Christmas decorations and ornament.

How to make your own real Fruitcake!

Don’t let the long history of this festive dessert scare you. Aside from fruit and nuts, fruitcake is just like any other quick bread or loaf cake. Don’t believe me? Follow this recipe below to make your very own fruitcake this holiday season!

Ingredients

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup full-fat sour cream
  • 1 cup chopped dates
  • 2 cups raisins
  • 1/2 cup chopped glazed cherries 
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour [divided: 1/4 cup and 1 3/4 cups]
  • 1/2 cup butter 
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • Grated rind of one orange
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 to 2 ounces brandy (optional)

Method

  • Step 1: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a 9×5-inch loaf pan with greased parchment paper.
  • Step 2: Mix baking soda and sour cream in a small bowl, then set aside.
  • Step 3: Toss the dates, raisins, cherries, and nuts with 1/4 cup of the flour, then set aside.
  • Step 4: Beat butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in egg, orange rind, then the sour cream mixture.
  • Step 5: Add the flour and the salt, then mix in the fruit/nut mixture.
  • Step 6: Scoop the batter into the ready loaf pan. 

Optional: To keep it moist, poke a couple of holes in the top and sprinkle on a few ounces of brandy or bourbon. You can find the full recipe here!

While real fruitcake might be a holiday tradition, feel free to change things up and send your friends, family, and VIPs sweet treats you’re sure they will enjoy! After all, the holidays are for spoiling those you care about most with what they love most.

Woo-Hoo! You’ve learned all about Fruitcake!

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