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Fruitcake, Long A Holiday Horror, Gets a Makeover

Mystery Bits Make Way For More Nuts and Booze; 'Nothing Green in Our Cake'
By SUSAN WARREN

Bakers have finally found a way to make fruitcake more appealing: Ditch the fruit -- especially those ghastly little neon-colored bits.

"That sticky red, green, yellow chopped-up stuff," says Kevin Nokels, vice president of Alegent Health Midlands Hospital in Papillion, Neb., which sells fruitcake each year. As a kid, Mr. Nokels sneaked a handful of candied fruit off the kitchen counter one Christmas when his mom wasn't looking. "It was awful," he recalls with a shudder.

Fruitcake is one holiday tradition that inspires both reverence and revulsion. Despite its battered image, fruitcake remains big business this time of year. Retailers like Collin Street Bakery, Harry & David and Butterfield Farms sell hundreds of thousands of the cakes in November and December. Premium cakes sell for $12 to $15 a pound.

Christmas fruitcakes can be traced to the Middle Ages when, after harvest, dried fruits and nuts were baked with just enough batter to hold the mix together. Fruitcake lore holds that the Crusaders packed it for their long journey to the Holy Land. For a while in the early 18th century, fruitcake (then known as plum cake) was outlawed in Europe because it was too "sinfully rich." Later, it became a staple of the British afternoon tea.

But fruitcake's popularity led to its commercialization in the 20th century, and many people grew to despise the heavily processed cakes, which were dense as lead and just about as tasty. Bright red and green candied fruit, the key ingredient that once provided fruitcake's festive charm, became an emblem of culinary atrocity.

Now, the fruitcake world is undergoing a tectonic shift.

Bakers are taking pains to minimize the fruit while playing up other ingredients. Fruit is almost an afterthought in the cakes sold by several monasteries. Instead, they infuse theirs with Christmas spirits.

"The rummier the yummier," avows Brother Joseph Reisch, the chief fruitcake maker at Assumption Abbey, a 57-year-old Trappist Monastery hidden away in the tiny enclave of Ava, Mo., in the rugged woodlands of the Ozark Mountains.

Assumption Abbey monks formerly supported themselves by making concrete blocks. They switched to fruitcake in the 1980s and now bake 25,000 cakes a year. "Around here we like to say, 'If you liked our concrete blocks, you'll love our fruitcakes,' " Brother Reisch jests.

The monks use candied fruit in their recipe, but only after they marinate it in burgundy wine. When the cakes come out of the oven, the monks use a syringe to inject each with rum in eight places. "So, basically you're getting a lot of profound remedial additive," Brother Reisch says.

In Lafayette, Ore., the monks at Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery prefer a stiffer additive for the 23,000 cakes they sell each year: 120-proof brandy. When they were selecting a recipe for their fruitcake, the monks scrupulously avoided anything with citron. "There's nothing green in our cake," boasts Father Richard Layton.

Alegent's Health's hospital auxiliary volunteers in Nebraska sell fruitcakes so packed with pecans that they taste more like a candy bar. "People sometimes say, 'This isn't a fruitcake,' " notes Rosemary Rubin, 83 years old, who perfected the group's fruitcake over several years by adjusting a recipe she found in a magazine in the 1970s. For starters, Ms. Rubin decided to deep-six the citron, a bitter-tasting citrus rind that turns up in fruitcake as mysterious green chunks.

[Hayden Crawford]

Executives at Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, one of the largest fruitcake operations in the world, felt the problem was the name, not the recipe. DeLuxe® fruitcake has been the bakery's bestselling product since it was founded in 1896, and executives expect to sell one million this year. But "we, as everyone, have seen this trend of fruitcake as a pejorative in American culture," says spokesman Hayden Crawford.

Five years ago, the bakery began marketing its fruitcakes under the category of Texas Pecan Cakes, along with other offerings such as Pecan Coffee Cake and White Chocolate Macadamia Cheesecake.

The move was a way of emphasizing the nuts, which make up 27% of each cake by weight, and de-emphasizing the "fruit" part of fruitcake. On a recent tour of Collin Street's bustling fruitcake factory on a main street of this small north Texas town, Mr. Crawford pointed out the boxes of shelled pecans stacked high in one part of the baking area. Two boxes -- 70 pounds -- are poured into every 260-pound batch of batter.

The bakery uses no citron or green cherries. Instead, Collin Street loads up its cake with pineapple from its own farm in Costa Rica. The only green is dyed pineapple chunks used to decorate the top. For those who can't abide even that, the bakery created a "Texas Blonde" version decorated only with pecan halves.

"Years ago, people had no problem with red and green fruit," muses Mr. Crawford. "It was done for the holidays. It was Christmassy."

Fruit was originally candied as a way to preserve the harvest in the days before refrigeration, much like salting pork. It's a simple process of boiling the fruit in sugary syrup, then using food dyes to add color. Fresh candied fruit is sweet and fruity, and was considered a delicacy reserved for special occasions. Commercial processing has destroyed much of the taste in today's packaged fruit.

Bright greens and reds no longer look festive. They just look fake, notes Chef Aimee Olson, chairwoman of the baking and pastry department at the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin.

As bakers use less candied fruit and more of other ingredients, fruitcake recipes have begun merging with other dense confections, including rum cakes and sticky toffee pudding. "They all have similar qualities: a dense, heavy cake with nuts and dried fruit," says Ms. Olson. "People like the idea of having a fruitcake, and if it tastes good, it's even better."

Fruitcake lover Paul Brians, an English professor at Washington State University in Pullman, set out to solve the problem of fruit in fruitcake 10 years ago by experimenting with his own recipes. "The secret lies in avoiding those disgusting glacéed cherries, citron, etc.," he wrote in baking instructions posted on his university Web site.

Mr. Brians uses dried fruit, marinated in a sweet dessert wine, and a pound or more of pecans held together by a spiced pound-cake batter. "I have converted a lot of people with my fruitcake," he boasts.

Mr. Brians suggests thinking of fruitcake as a kind of stew. You can do a lot of things with it, as long as you follow one rule: Don't put anything in your fruitcake that doesn't taste good by itself.