This year is the forty-ninth anniversary of my making a rather signature fruitcake. So hold on a moment before the “yuck” or the condescending comments about brick doorstops. I’ll say this directly; there is little connection between my cakes and the storied concoctions of your aunt Ethel or the bricks that are available from the stores.
Those are dried fossilized aggregates of stone-hard, over-baked, stale fruits with a batter of over-sugared cake. It is true; such things are so hard and durable that they have been considered materials to build housing for the homeless.
Fruitcakes started as a pragmatic solution to an old problem. There was a need to preserve some of the fruits of summer into winter. Baking them into a durable cake was a solution. I’ve heard that after baking, the cakes were punctured with skewers and wrapped in linen soaked in wine or brandy. The partnership of a firm cake, the cloth, and the alcohol could preserve the cake for a significant time. The cakes were then sealed into tins so the alcohol would not evaporate.
About the only thing left of the old tradition for most fruitcakes is the part of being sealed in the tin. These modern fruitcakes are poor representations of what can be a sensual snack. The key is in the ingredients and the storage.
You’ll have to start with good-quality figs, dates, nuts, and raisins. These are added to a buttery batter. In a good fruitcake, there is only enough batter to hold the fruit together in a mass. I make small cakes because if you buy quality ingredients, these cakes can be costly and because I bake for an appreciative group of family and friends. This year there are fourteen; some years, I’ve made as many as twenty.
After baking, the cakes are allowed to rest, wrapped in muslin, and placed in Ziploc bags. Each bag of two cakes initially receives four to six shots of rum or brandy. Then, the entire batch is placed in a cool spot and allowed to settle. I check the wrappings weekly and add the rum as needed. Then, before I ship the cakes out, I add a final dose of rum.
You are saying to yourself, “that’s a lot of rum!” Correct, it is a lot of rum. I could avoid the fruitcake/ aunt Ethel comparison by calling them rum cakes, but then I’d have to explain that they were not what is traditionally known as rum cakes.
My cakes are moist with a very slight peppery taste from the rum. Kept carefully wrapped, the cake will last after being opened. But most do not last that long, and it’s part of why I make small cakes – just enough to enjoy, not enough to go stale afterward.
When I started doing these forty-nine years ago, I was fresh off the road as a traveler, settling down and going to college ( at last).
I was no longer surfing friends’ sofas or residing in Single Occupancy Rooming houses. I was no longer getting shot at, hustling gigs in bars and cheap coffeehouses. Instead, I was announcing a new sort of conventionality in my life.
Of course, you make a person look conventional, but you can’t change what’s inside – “Still crazy after all these years.”