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Fruitcakes

Martha Stewart Living, December 2000

Five Varieties
Our selected recipes show that not all fruitcakes are alike. There is a fruitcake for everyone -- you will miss out if you dismiss it (listed as pictured from top to bottom).

Dowager Duchess Fruitcake
Backhouse Family Fruitcake
Chocolate Panforte
Fruit and Stout Cake
Figgy Christmas Fruit Roll

A slice of ripe fruitcake, inlaid with colorful candied fruits and nuts, is reminiscent of mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, and medieval tapestries. The connection is more than just visual. Recipes for fruitcakes date back to crude examples from the seventh century, reflecting the influence of Persian culture on European cuisine. The Persians knew how to preserve fruit in sugar, and to grind almonds and sugar into the paste we know as marzipan. Over time, Europeans embraced the custom of adding candied fruits and ground nuts to their breads and cakes. By the nineteenth century, the English, forever fond of sweets, had perfected the art of the fruitcake.

English "cookery" books are chock-full of fruitcakes with wonderful names like Fat Rascal. Often the cakes are attributed to a person, suggesting the recipe was a family heirloom. Sometimes the recipes include short anecdotes or childhood memories of cracking and shelling pounds of nuts in preparation. One recipe warns that fruit must only be cut with sharp kitchen scissors. Another reminds us to stir clockwise for good luck. Making fruitcake is a serious business. It requires an expensive, seemingly gargantuan quantity of ingredients -- gorgeous candied citrus peel, glaceed cherries, currants, nuts, sweet butter, eggs, flour, and, of course, brandy -- which yields a small number of cakes. Consequently, fruitcakes have always been reserved for special occasions -- Christmas in particular.

One must wonder, then, about the fruitcake's fall from grace. Why does the gift of a fruitcake, once the epitome of decadence and goodwill, seem more punishing than a stocking full of coal? The explanation is simple: The ingredients have been abused. Most people make fruitcakes with "fruit for fruitcakes," a scary melange of strangely fluorescent, sticky citrus peel and green cherries that comes pre-chopped. The nuts in fruitcakes, when there are any, are usually old and, worse, rancid, and the brandy has been replaced with something akin to grenadine. No wonder people can't stomach the stuff.

But it does not have to be that way. Fruitcake is heaven when you bake your own and fill it with only the fruits and nuts you love. There is a nice rhythm to baking fruitcakes that helps to keep you sane during the harried holidays. First, you must assemble all your jewel-like ingredients. Fruitcakes are forgiving: You can almost always substitute a fruit you like for one you do not. It is important to have a balance of tastes and textures. Test to see if your selected fruits and nuts work together before making any decisions; just pop a small handful into your mouth. Then find a day to bake -- a full day when baking fruitcakes is the only thing you have to do. Make sure to bake a month (or even two or three) before the cakes have to be ready. A fruitcake needs to age, to ferment, before it is perfect. After you have wrapped your cakes in muslin and set them aside, check them once a week, and douse them with a little liquor; if you are tired, use them as an excuse to stay home: "My fruitcakes need tending to."

The fruitcakes here are intended to convert even the most serious fruitcake hater -- just try not to like the chocolate panforte. It is so rich, full of dried cherries and hazelnuts. The dowager duchess fruitcake, spiked with sherry, is very ladylike. The fruit and stout cake, when it is good and ripe, tastes pourri -- delectably rotten -- a compliment usually reserved for wine. Our favorite is the backhouse family fruitcake. Sara Backhouse, an associate food editor at Martha Stewart Living, announced one day that her mother made "the best fruitcake ever." We received the recipe via email from Australia. This may not be the most ceremonious way to hand down family secrets, but Sara was right -- there is nothing better. Please try it.

Here's just a few of the many possible fruitcake ingredients:
Whole almonds
Plump prunes
Walnuts
Brazil nuts
Golden raisins
Glaceed pineapple
Pistachio nuts
Dried figs
Dried cherries
Glaceed apricots
Medjool dates
Chocolate
Hazelnuts
Candied citrus peel
Currants

Now all that's left is to wrap it up in a pretty package.