For more than 20 years now, it has been generally accepted that your typical holiday fruitcake is so horrible as to be inedible. In such an environment, it has become remarkably challenging to craft a decent joke about fruitcakes. They have all been told.
Fruitcakes, alas, are past the point of being merely hilarious and are perhaps now in grave danger of fading into irrelevancy. If we can't eat them and we can't laugh about them, what further purpose could they serve?Still, fruitcakes persist. A commercial example purchased recently at a national-chain drugstore had a lovely decorative tin that claimed to contain a "premium" fruitcake. That was promising.
Yet upon opening the lid, the smell of red dye number 40 was so strong it evoked the sensation that a train of chemical tankers had derailed at the end of the street. The cake's heft was impressive for its size, and the ingredient list ran 109 words ("wheat flour" being words 35 and 36).
And what exactly were those neon green bits nestled into the cake beside the red nubby things and the blobby yellowish chunkettes and the alien-brainlike translucent cherries? It was all very disturbing.
As for the taste test, three words: dry, dry and horrible.
Of course, it's not fair to compare a fruitcake made several states away and who knows how long ago to any decent homemade fruitcake.
Allegedly, there are good fruitcake recipes out there. But where?
Sure, fruitcake recipes pop up from time to time in cookbooks and magazines, but they inevitably have headnotes that start something like this: "Most fruitcakes are awful, but this one will convert any nonbeliever." That is total rubbish, of course.
Please, if you've got a fruitcake recipe that you and your ilk actually like, then by all means keep using it. (Do not send it to this newspaper or this writer.) But keep in mind that your family might be lying about your cake's superiority and that the reason your dog gets sick every year around the holidays may be because he's eating a disturbing quantity of fruitcake handed to him under the table.
For those of us who don't have a good fruitcake recipe, let's have a fresh go at the whole problem. Let's back up and look at this situation from afar. Let's question our assumptions.
For example, why must so many fruitcakes be so dense and sweet and soaked in brandy or rum? Yes, to help preserve it, OK. Before the invention of refrigeration this was particularly important. But here's an idea for the modern age: Why do we want to preserve something we don't like? How about we reduce the cake's shelf life (or maturation time, if you want to look at it that way) in order to improve the cake's flavor?
While we're giving fruitcake a makeover, let's eliminate some of the worst ingredients.
Maraschino or candied cherries? Banned! Red dye, green dye or any dye? Cast them out into the cold! Candied citron? No way! Pineapple? Get thee to a nunnery! Golden raisins? Disgusting stuff, that!
Perhaps another problem with your average fruitcake is that there's just too much going on, like the baker just ransacked the pantry and used every possible ingredient. So a bit of simplicity might help us. Fewer fruits, for example.
And what about the spices like cloves, ginger, nutmeg, mace, et al., that can transport a fruitcake from the merely annoying category to the realm of the truly nauseating? Too many spices plus too many dried fruits equals badness, badness everywhere and nary a crumb to eat.
OK, and while we're at it, how about a cake that's easy to make? No four-hour baking time. No sprinkling the cake with brandy every day for six weeks before it's ready. How about a cake that's about as easy to make as your everyday corn bread, and which can be eaten immediately or kept for about 10 days? Yes!
Yadda, yadda, yadda, one week and $60 worth of dried fruit and nuts later, and I humbly submit the following recipe, one possible solution to the fruitcake problem. No neon green bits, no density problem, no spices. Just the right amount of dried fruit, some lovely walnuts and a nice touch of brandy and vanilla.
We'll know if the recipe is a true success if people start baking it at other times of the year than the holidays.
Let the fruitcake jokes fade away ...
A less disturbing fruitcake
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Resting time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Cooling time: 30 minutes
Yield: Two 9-by-5-inch loaves (about 36 slices)
1 cup brandy
1/2 cup water
1 vanilla bean, split, scraped, seeds reserved
1 cup dried tart cherries
2/3 cup dried blueberries
Grated zest of each: 1 orange, 1 lemon
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/4 cups flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups chopped walnuts
1. Heat the brandy, water, vanilla bean and scraped seeds, cherries, blueberries and fruit zests to a simmer in medium saucepan. Remove from the heat; cover. Let rest 30 minutes. Drain the fruit, reserving the liquid. Remove the vanilla bean.
2. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat the oil and melted butter with a mixer in a large bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Beat in 1/2 cup of the berry poaching liquid (add water to make 1/2 cup, if necessary).
3. Sift the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add flour mixture to the wet mixture; beat 2 minutes. Pour the batter into two buttered and floured 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Spoon the poached berry mixture and walnuts on top of the cake batter. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour, 20 minutes. Let cool in the pan 30 minutes. Remove from pan; cool completely on a wire rack. The cakes keep up to a week in a sealed container at room temperature.
Nutrition information per serving (based on 18 slices per loaf):194 calories, 42% of calories from fat, 9 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 36 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 69 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
Jeremy Jackson is a novelist and author of "The Cornbread Book" and "Good Day for a Picnic."