The Christmas Fruitcake: Love it or Loathe it?

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Written by Carol Lynn Jackson

“There’s only one fruitcake on the planet and everyone keeps passing it around.” ~ Johnny Carson

The fruitcake came from the Middle Ages and the Middle East. And then that person passed the cake into Europe. I received the cake here in America thousands of years later. And I am not the only one. Fruitcake is, to many, a runaway joke.

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But at its origin, fruitcake was a grand indulgence. Packed full of dried fruit, nuts and spices, it was ancient Rome’s energy bar. Each region’s fruitcake was slightly different in its ingredients, but was not associated with anything other than everyday culture. As the cake traveled with its immigrants to America, how it left everyday culture to show up only during the Christmas season is still a mystery.

Or maybe not. As the American mail-order industry exploded, the fruitcake served as a solidly preserved, safe to ship, ready-to-eat gift that could let friends and family around the world know you were, er hum, thinking of them. But even the well-preserved fruitcake does not survive mass meal production and travel miles so well. By the time a standard fruitcake arrives, be it drenched in nuts, fruits, and booze, it tends to be cracked, dry and flaky, the gag gift of the season. Fruitcake catapult, anyone?

I am a fan of all things homemade during the holidays. So with the proper recipe perhaps it’s time to revisit the cake. It really is a flavorful and exotic dish and when made from Edna Lewis’ amazing (and amazingly easy) Christmas Fruitcake recipe, it’s delicious.

Edna Lewis is a southern chef whose cookbooks are steeped in stories of her Virginia upbringing as granddaughter to an emancipated slave and as a family who helped start Virginia’s Orange County communities. Her books, packed with amazing Southern soul-food recipes, also include vignettes and homages to her culture like how to gather wild berries and mushrooms and how to turn dandelion greens into wine. Her move to New York City helped her develop her cookbook fame, often being called the South’s Julia Childs. Give this one a try this holiday season. •

Edna Lewis’ Christmas Fruitcake


1 c. each diced candied orange and lemon peel

2 c. long thin strips citron

1 c. dried currants

2 c. raisins, chopped

½ c. each dry red wine and brandy

3 ½ c. unbleached all-purpose flour

1 t. each ground cinnamon and ground allspice

2 t. grated nutmeg

½ t. each ground cloves and ground mace

1 t. double-acting baking powder

½ t. salt

2 ¼ sticks unsalted butter

2 c. firmly packed light brown sugar

5 large local eggs, yolks separated and lightly beaten, the whites at room temperature

½ c. local sorghum


In a large bowl, stir together the orange and lemon peel, citron, currants and raisins. Add the wine and brandy and combine the mixture well. Let the fruit macerate, covered, for several hours or better, overnight.

Butter a 10×4-inch tube pan (or 2 loaf pans, each 9x5x3-inches) and line it with parchment paper. Butter the parchment paper well.

Into a bowl, sift the flour with the spices. Add the baking powder and salt and sift again.

In an electric mixing bowl, cream the butter with the brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat the mixture well. Add the flour, a little at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sorghum and beat the mixture well. Stir in the fruit mixture with the liquid and combine well.

In an electric mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Fold the whites gently but thoroughly into the batter. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and let stand, covered loosely with a kitchen towel, in a cool place overnight to let the flavors mellow.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Bake the fruitcake on the middle rack of the oven for 90 minutes. Remove and cover with a piece of brown paper (do not use foil) and bake it for an additional 2 to 2 ½ hours.

Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack or turn it out onto a work surface, leaving the parchment paper on the cake. Once cool, wrap the cake in foil and punch holes across the top of it. Pack it in a tin and set in a cool place. Every 2 to 3 weeks, up until Christmas, sprinkle the cake with brandy, wine or whisky to keep it moist, flavorful, and preserved.

Package, wrap, and give with pride this and every holiday season. •