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Characteristics of Fruitcake

No other culinary creation seems to divide the public like the fruitcake. Defenders of the leaden loaf claim that those who abhor fruitcake just haven't had the right kind. So what is the right kind? And does density make it more delicious or more dangerous (if, say, dropped on the foot)?

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­Let's begin by examining the statistics. The average fruitcake weighs two pounds and serves six to seven people. Its ability to languish on countertops for months without a spot of mold developing is due to its moisture-stabilizing properties, mainly sugar. The high density of sugar reduces the cake's water content, and therefore its ability to bind to microorganisms (bacterium).

For fruitcake aficionados, fruit can make or break the baked good, and preference varies widely. But most bakers do agree on one aspect of fruitcake baking: The fruitcake should be made at least one month in advance of its gifting (or eating). Some even make the fruitcake one year in advance. This allows the cake to deepen its flavors, particularly since fruit contains tannins that, like wine, release over time [source: Isthmus]. It's also common for the baker to add another seasoning dimension by "feeding" the fruitcake -- pouring whiskey, brandy or rum over the loaf. This process, too, adds to the weight of a fruitcake.

According to writer Erika Janik, nuts and fruits should compose at least 50 percent of the loaf, which would provide considerable heft. However, she cautions:

"At its best, fruitcake is a delicious mix of dried fruits and nuts, bound by sugar, flour, eggs and a few spices. But at its worst, fruitcake is rock hard, laced with day-glo candied fruit and bitter citron."

[source: Isthmus]

Such an edict gives the fruitcake-maker a clue: The loaf can -- and should -- be heavy, but it must be moist and have a variety of flavor in order to be a successful dessert. But even a fork-tender fruitcake redolent with citrus notes and sweet with spices like cinnamon and clove can't shake its role as butt of an age-old joke.

In the next section, we'll look at the many ways that fruitcakes can be repurposed.