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Nuts over fruitcake

It's the Rodney Dangerfield of confections -- rich, successful, unmistakable and, in some circles, utterly without respect.

It's a hallowed family tradition, it's standard late-show humor. It's a business that includes great big bakeries, bit players, high school bands and Trappist monks. It's a seasonal treat, a yearlong guilty habit, a lifelong running joke and a litmus test of family relationships.

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Ah, fruitcake. To know it is to love it or hate it -- no messing with Mr. or Ms. In-between when it comes to the dense loaf of candied fruit (usually), nuts (often), and cake (very little).

Moira Hodgson, British-born food writer and restaurant critic now based in New York, has a theory, which she expounds in the the very first paragraph of her new book, "Favorite Fruitcakes:"

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"People either love fruitcakes or they hate them, the latter I think because they only know the commercial variety -- heavy, dried-out cakes that are dyed alarming colors and often have a strange soapy taste. But a real fruitcake is to store-bought ones what Camembert is to artificially flavored cheese spread, or Puligny Montrachet to white wine cooler.

"In England, we have them for Easter as well as for Christmas," she says. "And we have them for tea. So I grew up really liking them."

But it was partly the love-hate reaction caused by the very mention of their name that led her to collect the recipes and write the book, which is interspersed with essays on fruitcake from such noted writers as Russell Baker, Truman Capote and Calvin Trillin.

In her research, she says, she discovered two things: "There are a lot of recipes for fruitcake. And there are a lot that are depressingly similar -- which may account for some people's dislike."

Like Ms. Hodgson, people often look back fondly on a childhood fruitcake tradition.

"I love fruitcake! I do! Don't you think it's odd that people don't?" says Edie Meleski, director of public relations for the Food Marketing Institute in Washington. "My father was a country doctor. Our family received wonderful fruits and cakes from his patients. Dad was paid in zucchini in the summer and fruitcake in the winter. I guess I cultivated my taste for fruitcake then."

But not all attempts to cultivate a taste for it are successful.

"I've been in this business for 20 years or so and I've never been able to sell fruitcake. I've tried to sell fruitcake . . . but I've never been able to," says Janis Talbott, who with her husband, Bob, runs Morton's, the spirits and gourmet food and catering shop in Mount Vernon.

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"I remember my grandmother made these things in September," Ms. Talbott says, "and she was wrapping them up in dish towels and soaking them in rum . . . I think my poor grandfather got suckered into eating all of them."

Ms. Meleski disagrees about store-bought cakes. "There's a lot of excellent fruitcakes out there . . . I seek it out in the supermarket." Ms. Meleski also recalls her mother baking fruitcakes in the fall, getting ready for Christmas. "I guess it's the modern woman," she says. "I haven't made any myself."

Fruitcake ought to be a favorite with all home cooks, Ms. Hodgson says. "If you're not a particularly good baker, there's a lot of room for error. It's not as exacting as so many recipes for cakes are." Besides, if there's something you don't like -- citron or candied cherries -- you can leave it out, and put in things you do like -- dried fruits or lots of pecans or walnuts, ginger or coconut.

And, she says, you can control the quality of the ingredients: "If you put good things into it, and unless you do something really peculiar, it's going to be good."

"I think it is a good idea" to combine fruit and nuts in a cake, says Nick Sheridan of Cuisine Catering in Baltimore. "There are a few fruitcakes where the candy and nuts enliven a sponge cake. But the way most fruitcake is made, it's just these candied fruits stuck together with the merest glue of cake. So it's so incredibly heavy and sweet. . . . It's an excess of generosity.

Although he says he loves Christmas and hates to deprecate a tradition, Mr. Sheridan regretfully concludes, "Fruitcake is something you give to someone you owe things to and you don't really want to see again, and then you've done your duty and they are stuck with finding someone to pass it on to . . . It's kind of like that game where, when the music stops, you don't want to be caught holding it."

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But Ms. Hodgson insists fruitcake has "just had a bad press."

Maybe it's the name. Can a food that's become synonymous with crazy behavior ever be taken seriously? Does fruitcake need a new image?

Ms. Talbott of Morton's says she has had success selling mini-muffin-sized fruitcakes from Grace Rush, and "nut cakes" from Sterling Bakeries. "But I've never advertised them as fruitcakes. If you say they're fruitcakes, people won't buy 'em."

People may be shying away from supermarket fruitcakes. According to Information Resources, a Chicago-based market research firm, one major brand, Claxton, sold 818,600 pounds of fruitcake in 1992, which was down 4.4 percent from 1991. The whole category of "shelf-stable cakes," however, gained some ground: 1992 sales of $292.8 million were up 8.5 percent from 1991.

There are alternatives to the traditional fruitcake, however.

"May she rest in peace, I didn't like my mother's fruitcake," says Art Whitaker of Washington. "What I concocted 25 years ago was a fruitcake substitute."

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Mr. Whitaker, a government statistician by trade, bakes Art Whitaker's Rumfru Delight Gourmet Cakes mostly on weekends, batches of 150 to 300. They are sold by mail order and among the upscale environs of Nordstrom apparel stores. Mr. Whitaker had no intention of going commercial with his hobby cake, but a contact at a financial seminar resulted in his product being made a marketing project by a group of American University business students, and an entrepreneur was born.

His "fruitcake alternative" has "more cake and less fruit," he says; the fruit is soaked in bourbon overnight. "It has to age at least three weeks," he says, joking, "I will sell no cake before its time." He sells two versions, one with pecans, one without.

"It has been a winner," he says. "I sell about 20 to 25 percent of my cakes in the Baltimore area."

Of course everyone has heard "The Theory." "The theory was that there is only one fruitcake, and that this fruitcake is simply sent on from year to year," writes humorist and food journalist Calvin Trillin, in "A Fruitcake Theory."

Well, sorry, Mr. Trillin. There are a lot of fruitcakes out there. The Collin Street Bakery of Corsicana, Texas, produces more than 4 million pounds of fruitcake a year.

"People who say they don't like fruitcake never ate one from Texas," says John Crawford, who handles sales and customer service for the bakery that is a designated historic landmark. "It's an art to us, and we work at it."

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Company history credits John Ringling with launching the mail-order side of the business when his circus troupe played Corsicana and members ordered cakes to be sent to friends abroad.

Mr. Crawford's company is one of several in the part of Texas called the Texas Fruitcake Triangle. Among others is Mary of Puddin Hill. Mary "Pud" Kearns, daughter of founders Mary Horton and Sam Lauderdale, says quality ingredients ensure customer loyalty. "None of us bake to a price," she says; rather, cakes are priced after ingredients are bought.

And "in spite of the onslaught" of negative publicity, she says, fruitcake sales have held steady in recent years.

Fruitcake represents a growth industry, however, for the monks of Holy Cross Abbey, Berryville, Va. There fruitcake has replaced farming as a major source of work and income.

Holy Cross, one of 12 Cistercian, or Trappist, monasteries in the country, has been producing fruitcake since 1986, says Father Andrew Gries. "We made 24,000 this year. Last year we made 23,000 and sold out, and it looks like we're going to sell out again."

Taste is what sells Holy Cross fruitcakes, Father Andrew says. Abbey fruitcakes contain cherries, pineapple, raisins, walnuts, dates, pecans, citron and lemon and orange peel, honey and spices, among other things. "So many people tell us they never liked fruitcake until they tasted our fruitcake."

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If you like the idea of fruitcake and think you might be able to do better than some you've tasted, here are some recipes. The first is one Moira Hodgson collected in "Favorite Fruitcakes" (HarperCollins Publishers, $12.50). Ms. Hodgson says she loves a slice of fruitcake with a cup of tea as an afternoon pick-me-up.

SilverPalette nutty

as a fruitcake fruitcake

Makes three loaves

8 cups pitted whole dates

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8 cups walnut halves

8 cups glace cherries

1/2 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour

6 eggs, separated, at room temperature

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

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6 tablespoons butter, melted

4 1/2 tablespoons heavy or whipping cream

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

2 teaspoons grated orange peel

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

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1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Butter three 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans. Line bottoms and sides with aluminum foil and butter foil generously.

Combine dates, walnuts and cherries in a very large bowl or roasting pan. Sprinkle with the all-purpose flour and toss to coat well, separating the dates with your fingers.

Combine egg yolks and both sugars in a large mixing bowl; beat until light and fluffy. Beat in butter, cream, vanilla, orange peel and almond extract. Mix whole wheat flour and baking powder thoroughly in a small bowl; stir this into the batter with a wooden spoon.

Beat the egg whites in another large bowl just until they form stiff peaks. Fold a quarter of the whites into the batter, then fold in the remaining whites. Pour the batter over the fruit mixture and mix well to coat all the fruit and nuts. Spoon it into the prepared pans, mounding the batter slightly in the pans.

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Cover the pans with buttered aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil from the tops and and continue baking until the centers are firm to the touch, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Cool cakes in pans on wire racks. Remove from pans and wrap tightly in aluminum foil. The fruitcake can be eaten the next day or stored in a cool place for up to 2 weeks.

This somewhat simpler recipe is from "Pillsbury: The Complete Book of Baking," (Viking, $25).

Glazed fruitcake squares

Makes 48 bars

FOR THE BARS:

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2 cups powdered sugar

1/2 cup margarine or butter, softened

1/4 cup brandy (see note)

2 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

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1 teaspoon salt

2 cups chopped candied fruit

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

FOR THE GLAZE:

1 cup powdered sugar

1 tablespoon margarine or butter, softened

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1 to 2 tablespoons brandy (see note)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 15-by-10-by-1-inch baking pan. In large bowl, combine powdered sugar, 1/2 cup margarine, 1/4 cup brandy and eggs; mix well. Stir in remaining bar ingredients; press into greased pan.

Bake for 15 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool. In small bowl, combine all glaze ingredients, adding enough brandy for desired drizzling consistency; beat until smooth. Drizzle glaze over top. When glaze is set, cut into bars.

To substitute for brandy in bars, use 1/4 cup water or orange juice and 1 teaspoon brandy extract. To substitute for brandy in glaze, combine 1 to 2 tablespoons water with 1/2 teaspoon brandy extract.

FRUITCAKE FACE-OFF

How about it, folks - does fruitcake dserve its "doorstop" reputation? Or is it a rich treat to be savored at special times?

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* Tell us what you think about fruitcake. Call Sundial, the Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 in Anne Arundel County) and punch in the four-digit code 6117 after you hear the greeting.


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