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Monday, December 17, 2018

Beth's Fruitcake

You probably know fruitcakes have been around for a long time. What is sometimes subjected to disparaging comments was at one time prized as a travel food, both in this life and to send with the deceased into the next.

Culinary lore claims that ancient Egyptians placed an early version of the fruitcake on the tombs of loved ones, perhaps as food for the afterlife. But fruitcakes were not common until Roman times, when pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and barley mash were mixed together to form a ring-shaped dessert. Prized for its portability and shelf life, Roman soldiers often brought fruitcake with them to the battlefields. Later, in the Middle Ages, preserved fruit, spices and honey were added to the mix and fruitcakes gained popularity with crusaders for their portability and their longevity.
Medieval Kitchen
Fruitcakes became popular all over Europe. Recipes varied greatly in different countries throughout the ages, depending on the available ingredients. For a time in the Middle Ages, fruit cakes made with butter and sugar were banned in Europe because they were thought to be too rich and tasty. Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) finally granted the use of butter, in a written permission known as the ‘Butter Letter' or Butterbrief in 1490, giving permission to Saxony to use milk and butter.

Starting in the 16th century, sugar from the American Colonies (and the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits) created an excess of candied fruit, thus making fruitcakes more affordable and popular. 

My grandmother, daughter of 19th century English immigrants, used to make fruitcake using a recipe she claimed came from England. She never gave the recipe to me while she lived since she was sure I would share it with all the ladies at church, then everyone would have her good fruitcake recipe. My aunt inherited my grandmother’s recipe box and sent me the recipe. In honor of my grandmother’s wishes, I still don’t share it outside the family.

The practice of adding alcohol to fruitcake to help preserve it started in the Victorian era. (My grandmother's parents' era. She used brandy-soaked cheesecloth to wrap her fruitcakes she made at least a month before the holiday season. She then wrapped the whole works in aluminum foil. She swore the alcohol evaporated before the cake was served. Okay, if she says so…)

From the 19th century on, fruitcake became a traditional wedding cake in England. (My grandmother made a groom’s cake for my wedding out of fruitcake. I tried to carry on the tradition with my children, but they were less than enthused.)

Typical American fruitcakes are rich in fruit and nuts. Mail-order fruitcakes in America began in 1913. The two largest producers of fruit cakes are Southern companies with inexpensive access to large nut quantities, for which the expression "nutty as a fruitcake" was derived in 1935.

Most American mass-produced fruitcakes are alcohol-free, but traditional recipes are saturated with liqueurs or brandy and covered in powdered sugar, both of which prevent mold. Brandy (or wine) soaked linens can be used to store the fruitcakes and is one method of lengthening its shelf life. Some people feel that fruitcakes improve with age.

One reason fruitcakes have become the objects of ridicule is because of their questionable age. If prepared correctly, they do preserve well. When a fruitcake contains a good deal of alcohol, it can remain edible for many years. For example, a fruitcake baked in 1878 was kept as an heirloom by a family (Morgan L. Ford) in Tecumseh, Michigan. In 2003 it was sampled byJay Leno on The Tonight Show. A 106-year-old fruitcake discovered in 2017 by the Antarctic Heritage Trust was described as in "excellent condition" and "almost" edible.

My grandmother would probably suggest that in order to make the above-mentioned fruitcake more edible again, it needs a good wrap in a brandy-soaked length of cheesecloth for a month or two.

In my book, Bridgeport Holiday Brides, to whom did Beth give a Christmas fruitcake? The answer is found in this excerpt:

             “No wedding trip first, Mrs. Dodd?” the lawyer teased.

          “I figure on takin’ care of business first, Mr. Murphy. Besides, my weddin’ trip will be to my own land.” Beth pulled her reticule onto her lap pulled the strings apart. “How much you figure I owe you?”

          “I almost hate to charge you for the satisfaction of helping put Edwin Caldwell in his place, Mrs. Dodd. But, even lawyers have to eat.”

          Beth paid him the fee he requested, although she suspected he gave her a discount. She decided she’d bring him a Christmas fruitcake at the time of her final payment.

Please CLICK HERE to find the book description and buy link for Bridgeport Holiday Brides.

Have a wonderful holiday and a very merry Christmas. Enjoy that fruitcake!




  1. I LOVE fruitcake! It wasn't always that way though. My parents liked it and we always had one at Christmas--just a small store-bought one. At the time, I didn't see how anyone could eat THAT! But as I got older, I tried it and found I really did like it, and now...I'm the only one in MY family who likes it. SIGH. So I rarely ever buy one. I think the ones Mom and Dad bought were something like Claxton brand...Now I might just have to find a fruitcake this year just for me.

    1. Thanks, Cheryl. I also love fruitcake. I just wish it didn't have so many calories...

  2. I don't like all fruitcakes, just those that have only a few raisins, but lots of candied fruit and nuts. As Cheryl mentioned, Claxton, is one of my favorites.
    Mom sometimes made fake fruitcake. Instead of candied fruit and nuts she would use lots of gum drops. Now THAT was my favorite. LOL Fruitcake does seem to be one of those things not everyone likes, but there is that group that just loves it. I understand, if it's prepared with brandy or whiskey, it could last almost forever. I wonder if they found some in King Tut's tomb.
    Mr. Murphy will be getting that fruitcake. I hope I didn't mess up by answering it here. I have Bridgeport Holiday Brides and intend to get to reading it and some others during the holidays.
    I enjoyed your post as always, Zina. I wish you the best Christmas ever.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. No, no worries. I just hope Mr. Murphy enjoyed that fruitcake of Beth's. I hope you enjoy the book.

  3. What an inspired article. I never knew there was so much to know about fruitcake.

  4. Robyn,
    What a great post. I love all the history!

  5. What a wonderful story. To have a family recipe is beyond wonderful, and fruitcake at that. WOW. Doris