“As nutty as a fruitcake”, as the idiom goes. It’s a popular one, but I always wondered where it came from, as the most nuts you’d find in a fruit cake in Britain is the almonds atop a Dundee cake, or maybe the ground ones in a Christmas cake. Turns out this comes from the United States, coined 80 years ago.
Fruit cake isn’t exclusively a British thing. Cakes with fruit in have been around for centuries, and appear in many different cultures. I mentioned the American cousin to the British Christmas cake in the recipe for the latter, and true to form, I am sharing with you the recipe I use, which I’ve lightly adapted from the original. This is authentic as it gets, as it comes from Betty; (a home cook from Kentucky who can be found on Youtube and has her own site) via her sister Barbara.
So what’s so different about this? I hear you ask.
The American fruitcake is a long-standing holiday tradition. In 1913, across the US, cakes began to be available via mail-order. Some well-known American bakers of fruit cake include Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, and The Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia. Both Collin Street and Claxton are Southern companies with access to cheap nuts, especially the pecan, and this in turn, in 1935, led to the creation of the expression “nutty as a fruitcake”.
Unlike our version, the fruitcake has long been ridiculed in American popular culture. Johnny Carson famously joked that there is only one in the world, passed from family to family.
The main difference between the American fruitcake, and the traditional Christmas cake, apart from the lack of marzipan and fondant atop, is the fruit itself. Whilst ours (and many others around the world) use dried fruits, the American version is stuffed with candied, or glacé fruit. And not just that, artifically-coloured ones. Think those bright red and green cherries you can buy.
As you can see, very different! I happen to think they’re really pretty. The glacé fruit inside look like jewels, especially when they’re chopped and put atop the cakes for decoration. They’re perhaps more fruit, than cake!
It’s difficult to say as a Brit with a pash for all things American why it’s become such a national joke, but I’m pretty sure the blame, as always, starts with horrid mass-produced versions which are inferior to a proper home-made one. I’ve researched these long and hard – the trashy holds dear to me – and can certainly sympathise with fruitcake haters. Some store-bought ones use candied TURNIP (no doubt cheaper than cherries) to bulk them out, whilst others are bulked with the bitter citron (which I like but can see why many wouldn’t, I was a candied peel phobe for many years). And indeed Betty, creator of this recipe, slates the mass-produced ones, saying they’re inedibly chewy and said that the ‘fruit’ barely qualifies as such.
‘Fruitcake tosses’ are a popular holiday game to get rid of unwanted ones, and it is also often the standard gift for a relation you don’t like very much; or the one you ‘regift’. Or use as a doorstop.
The mail-order cake still exists, one particular example is made by the monks of Trappist Abbey, Oregon, and these for the most part are superior in quality to the mass-produced crap – my late paternal grandfather was a long-term customer of Collin Street Bakery, who do deliver to the UK.
After reading about the American fruitcake in December 2013, I was so charmed by their colourful appearance I tried to make a spin using a bara brith recipe. Went OK but got lost in the Christmas baking shuffle that year. I’ve also made ‘fruitcake scones’ (cherry scones using tri-colour cherries) with some success. But last year, I decided in addition to the trad Brit Christmas cake, I was going to go Stateside too (which was another reason for making a smaller one!). And I discovered, not only do I love the look, but also the taste. I’d be a bad American.
This recipe is as good ol’ Deep South as it gets and Betty’s video is charming (and Betty herself is achingly glamourous, a real Kentucky gal). it’s a very easy recipe if you don’t mind a bit of chopping.
If you have a large bundt pan or tube pan, make it in one, or use two 2lb loaf tins as I do. If you find pecans (there is a lot but remember this originates from the Deep South where they’re local produce) too costly, use walnuts instead.
This is cooked long and slow so set aside a half day for this. Same as you would a Christmas cake.
Finally, I absolutely INSIST no ‘natural colour’ glacé cherries please! You can easily find the multicoloured, artificial red, gold and green ones online or on wholefood market stalls at this time of year! For the mixed fruits, use whatever you can find that won’t break the bank (you may not want that fancy box of French glacé fruit from Lakeland here!). Those red pears and angelica would be ideal, as well as the gold cherries. If however you don;’t want to spend too much, just replace with another 8oz of chopped dates. The original recipe from Betty was in fact 1lb dates, I just replaced half this amount with the extra chopped glacé fruits to make it mine because I’d bought other fruits such as candied pears, peach halves, melon, kiwi and angelica, and I thought that 1lb of cherries and pineapple wasn’t enough! Actually, I just wanted more coloured bits to make it even gaudier (go hard or go home!). Do as you wish.
8oz dates, chopped
4oz green glacé cherries, halved
4oz red glacé cherries, halved (not ‘natural colour’!)
4oz glacé pineapple rings, cut into chunks
8oz mixed glacé fruits (available online from various sources – Amazon is good, or from wholefoods stalls) e.g red pears, gold cherries, angelica, melon, whatever you can find. Candied peel would be good, or just use another 8oz of dates.
1lb pecans, chopped in the processor. (or walnuts)
1 US cup caster sugar
1 US cup self-raising flour
4 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground nutmeg
Some more coloured cherries, halved
Handful or two pecans
- Preheat oven to 130 degrees Celsius (250 Fahrenheit). Grease two 2lb loaf tins and line with a sheet of greaseproof that comes out over the sides for easy lifting out later.
- Chop dates if not using ready-chopped, halve cherries and cut pineapple into chunks. Chop up the mixed candied fruit (or whatever you’re using e.g extra dates, peel, cherries etc) into small, even-ish pieces. Blitz pecans in a processor or bash in a freezer bag with rolling pin.
- Place all fruit and nuts into a large mixing bowl.
- In a separate bowl, whisk flour, nutmeg and sugar to combine and add to fruit.
- Beat eggs with the vanilla in another bowl and add to dry ingredients and fruit before mixing well to just combine.. This is a heavy mixture as the eggs are the only liquid. It is easier to just roll your sleeves up and use your hands – it will come together fairly quickly.
- Divide mixture between the loaf pans, or a large tube pan if you have one, and use a spoon to compact it down as hard as you can. You don’t want any air bubbles.
- This is an option – you don’t have to – decorate as I have with more halved cherries and pecans before baking, as this welds them to the top and the low heat ensures the sugary fruit won’t catch.
- Bake in the oven for 1 and a half hours -1 hour 45 minutes (ovens vary); if using a big tube pan, it may take up to and over 2 hours -until firm and a tester comes out clean – you will find a small bit of stickiness on it because of the high amount of syrupy glacé fruit in- and the top springs back upon light pressure.
- Place tins on a wire rack and cool COMPLETELY. They will harden up more as they cool.
- Once completely cool, loosen ends with a pallet knife and gently lift out using the surplus parchment. Peel it away.
- If using straight away, slice thinly with a serrated knife and serve. If not, pierce top a few times and feed with a few spoonfuls approx of bourbon whiskey. Then, soak some muslin in bourbon and wrap around cake before wrapping again in foil and storing in a cool dark place. Remember to check periodically and refresh the muslin as this helps preserve the cake.
Stockists for glacé fruit: