Ultimate Guide to Fruitcake


On average, a fruitcake weighs up to two pounds and contains dried or candied fruits as well as alcohol like rum. See more pictures of holiday baked goods.
Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

Each year in December, the U.S. Postal Service places tidy, dense packages of certain baked goods into the mailboxes of citizens. But this parcel isn't relegated to the United States. In fact, in 2006, some 2,952 pounds of fruitcake -- a traditional Christmas treat -- were delivered to Iraq [source: Christian Science Monitor]. And with a shelf life of up to three years (even longer if generously doused with rum), it's easy to see why they're so mail-friendly. But what, exactly, is fruitcake?

Although there are many recipes, the main ingredients that constitute a proper fruitcake are flour, s­ugar, eggs, whiskey, brandy or rum, walnuts and nuts or dates. But it's the signature element -- fruit -- that merits mention. Some recipes call for candied fruit, as opposed to dried fruit. And the type of fruit tends to vary by region.

Fruitcake is a tradition that goes back to Roman times. It became a staple of festivals, and today is widely associated with the December holidays. There are some who are ardent about these fruit-filled loaves. And while fruitcake may not have a poem penned for it like another traditional food, haggis ("To a Haggis," by Robert Burns), it has been defended by many and continues to be baked, wrapped and delivered. In fact, Texas-based Collin Street Bakery, which has been providing fruitcakes since 1896, produces more than 1 million a year and ships to 200 countries [source: Texas Monthly].

Others are less than thrilled to receive what they see as heavy and inedible as a brick. After all, according to Harper's Index, the average fruitcake has a 1:1  density ratio with mahogany [source: Christian Science Monitor]. So why is fruitcake sought after by some and ridiculed by others?

In this article, we'll look at the history behind this fruit-studded loaf and we'll learn what makes it so weighty and impervious to molding, as well as how to "feed" your fruitcake. We'll also explore alternative uses for fruitcake, such as paperweight, doorstop or even projectile.

History of Fruitcake

Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn buys panettone, an Italian version of fruitcake.
Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn buys panettone, an Italian version of fruitcake.
Enzo Graffeo/BIPs/Getty Images

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 [source: What's Cooking in America].

­With the colonies providing a boon in cheap, raw materials, 16th-century fruitcakes contained cupfuls of sugar, which added another density booster to the cake. In addition, fruits from the Mediterranean were candied and added to the mixture, along with nuts. Each successive century seemed to contribute yet another element to the cake, like alcohol during the Victorian era, until it became weighty with the cumulative harvests of the seasons.

In fact, by the early 18th century, fruitcake became synonymous with decadence and was outlawed in Europe, where it was proclaimed "sinfully rich" [source: Associated Content]. The law was eventually repealed since fruitcake had become an important part of the tea hour, particularly in England.

Recent centuries have seen fruitcake continue as a popular item to send to soldiers. One former soldier, Lance Nesta, rediscovered a fruitcake gifted to him in 1962 when he was stationed in Alaska. He had forgotten about the loaf, and it ended up in his mother's attic, where he found it 40 years later, claiming that at the time of receiving the present, "I opened it up and didn't know what to do with it. I sure wasn't going to eat it, and I liked my fellow soldiers too much to share it with them" [source: Breitbart].

The humble loaf has also appeared in popular culture like Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory," which recounts young Capote's time spent with his eccentric cousin, who would commence to fruitcake-making when she deemed it proper "fruitcake weather."

But it's perhaps the former host of "The Tonight Show," Johnny Carson, who best determined fruitcake's place in the modern psyche. Deriding the loaf as a holiday reject, he once claimed that, "The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other" [source: Village Voice].

In the next section, we'll look at the physical qualities of fruitcakes and find out why some people begin "feeding" their fruitcakes a year in advance of their gifting or consumption.

Characteristics of Fruitcake

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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)?

­

­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.

Fruitcake Tossing and Other Endeavors

For distance competitions, there are two weight divisions: standard (two pounds) and heavy weight (four pounds).
For distance competitions, there are two weight divisions: standard (two pounds) and heavy weight (four pounds).
Courtesy of Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce/Photo by Andra DuRee Martin

Each­ year in early January, the town of Manitou Springs, Colo. gathers for the Annual Great Fruitcake Toss. Besides acting as a food drive -- participants must bring one canned item to gain admission -- the event is a clever way to rid citizens of unwanted fruitcakes. Fruitcakes can be hurled, tossed or launched by a pneumatic device such as a spud gun.

The Best Showmanship award encourages contestants to wear costumes and decorate their launching devices.
Courtesy of Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce/Photo by Andra DuRee Martin

Since 1994, individuals and teams have tested their projectile prowess with the promise of a trophy in one of the following categories:

  • Catch the Fruitcake - Team members catch fruitcakes launched from their team's device.
  • Accuracy with Targets - Targets are placed at distances of 75 feet, 125 feet and 175 feet with the objective to land or hit a target.
  • Most Creative Launch/Crowd Pleaser - Teams are tasked to execute an inventive launch as judged by the crowd.
  • Best Showmanship - Peoples Choice Award - Teams are judged by costume, decorated devices and slogans.

­Judges take the event seriously and make contestants adhere to standards such as weight divisions (two- and four-pound fruitcakes), launching distances, fruitcake contents (must contain glacéed fruits, nuts, flour and be edible) and launching devices (non-fuel devices only) [source: Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce].

Fruitcakes have also found their way into science experiments. "Iron Science Teacher" is a competition similar to the food show "Iron Chef," wherein competitors are given a secret ingredient to perform an experiment with.

One year, the secret ingredient was fruitcake, and science teachers had 10 minutes to present their science lessons, which included dropping various sizes of fruitcakes to reenact Galileo's Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment, drowning fruitcakes in water to measure buoyancy and using fruitcakes to illustrate the powers of the digestive system [source: Torassa].

And in 2006, nutrition and food scientist Thom Castonguay blew up fruitcakes with a bomb calorimeter -- a metal box that allows for small-scale food explosions. The heat from the explosion was measured in order to determine the amount of calories in the fruitcake [source: NPR].

Though some people prefer to repurpose their fruitcakes in less dramatic ways, like the old stand-by: fruitcake-as-doorstop. For more information about holiday traditions and related articles, visit the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Baker, Russell. "Fruitcake is Forever." New York Times. Dec. 25, 1983. Section six. Page 10.
  • Elliot, Debbie. "Science Finds One Use for Fruitcake: Blow it Up!" NPR. Dec . 30, 2006. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6700905
  • Hodgson, Moira. "Food; Leaving Commercial Fruitcake Behind." Oct. 25, 1992. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE4DE1E38F936A15753C1A964958260
  • Huang, Carol. Backstory: Counting on Christmas." Christian Science Monitor. Dec. 19, 2006. http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/1219/p20s01-lihc.html
  • Janik, Erika. "Stop making fun of fruitcake!" Isthmus. http://www.thedailypage.com/isthmus/article.php?article=5127
  • Kleiman, Dena. "Just in Time, A Defense of Fruitcakes." New York Times. Oct. 18, 1989. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DE0D6103AF93BA25753C1A96F948260
  • Rodemann, Katharyn. "Bob McNutt's sticky truths about fruitcake." Texas Monthly. http://www.texasmonthly.com/2007-12-01/thehorsesmouth.php
  • Sietsema, Robert. "A Brief History of Fruitcake." The Village Voice. Nov. 20, 2002. http://www.villagevoice.com/nyclife/0247,sietsema,40011,15.html
  • Torassa, Ulysses. "Sacrificing fruitcake for science." San Francisco Gate. Dec. 13, 1989. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/examiner/archive/1998/12/13/METRO1.dtl
  • "Christmas Pudding." Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/2004/12/22/cx_cv_1222food.html
  • "History of Fruitcake." What's Cooking in America. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Cakes/Fruitcake.htm
  • "Man Rediscovers Gift Fruitcake From 1962." Breitbart News. http://www.breitbart.com/article.php?id=D8H2KF4G0&show_article=1
  • "NASA Facts." NASA. http://www.nasa.gov/facts/Space/index.html
  • "Nutty as a Fruit Cake." Associated Content. Aug. 9, 2006. http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/48989/nutty_as_a_fruit_cake.html
  • Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce. http://www.manitousprings.org/Uploads/13TH%20ANNUAL%20FRUITCAKE%20TOSS%20%20RULES%20Final.08.pdf