I am going to spare you the usual fruitcake jokes (bricks, door stoppers . . . you’ve heard them all) and cut to higher ground. Fruitcakes are deserving of some respect in the culinary collective, if only because they are quite beyond tradition--they hedge on antiquity itself. To follow the trail of how fruitcake came to be is a quick course in the evolution of modern baking.
Fruitcake’s most ancient direct ancestor may have been panforte (pronounced pan-fort-ay), a dense, low-slung confection of fruits and nuts. The name literally means “strong bread.” Try biting into some and you will see immediately why the name stuck.
Made with citron and cinnamon, as well as the Middle Age’s beloved honey, spice-laden panforte traveled well and tasted ambrosial. It can be found in many gourmet shops in this country--most of it imported from Sienna, Italy, where a panforte industry not only exists but thrives.
Alongside panforte, the Middle Ages produced less-strong breads sweetened with dried fruits. Their descendants are the festival breads still made in European countries. During the 19th century, baking powder replaced yeast in the English-speaking world’s fruited breads, vastly changing their texture and taste, making them into cake.
Fruitcake is still beloved in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, but somehow we North American colonialists merely tolerate it. Aside from references to “Martha Washington’s Great Cake"--a cholesterol and caloric wonder of 40 eggs and four pounds of butter that comes up in several old American cookbooks--most fruitcake recipes hail from Britain.
In any event, I am unashamed to admit that fruitcakes are still adored by bakers--at least speaking for myself. The special event marks our calendar as an occasion to go all out and produce the most lavish fruitcake ever--awash in brandy or whiskey, lovely candied fruits and a heady batter of butter, fresh eggs and flour.
Now is the time to begin preparations for aged fruitcakes. Both pro and home bakers alike pride themselves on their special fruit and spice mix. In fact, nothing stirs up the average baking grandma more than asking her what makes the best fruitcake. With jam or a grated apple or two? White or brown sugar? Fruit macerated or not? Brandy, wine, rum or naught? Green cherries or only red? Nuts or not? Baking powder or none? Coat with apricot jam, or an overcoat of marzipan, or just cheesecloth soaked in spirits?
In the end, the only thing to do is choose a fruitcake. Tuck into some, or simply tuck a slice under your pillow. Either way, it’s staying stuff.
Goldman runs the Baker Boulanger Web site, http://www.betterbaking.com