Don’t believe the bad press on holiday fruitcakes.
Any dessert that’s been around for centuries must have something going for it. In the case of fruitcake — or Christmas cake, as it’s known in England — it’s the ingredients which traditionally include rum. But even without the booze, how bad can a cake be whose basic recipe calls for butter, sugar, rum (and sometimes brandy too), raisins, currants, dried cranberries, blueberries and apricots, lemon zest and orange zest, candied ginger, cherries, pineapple, sweetened flaked coconut, chopped dates rolled in sugar and chopped nuts?
In Victorian England, Christmas would have been incomplete without Christmas cake. Yet Dickens derided the confection. And so it has gone through the years.
Truman Capote, in his 1950s short story, “A Christmas Memory,” included a scene where fruitcake bakers were in need of an important ingredient and went to their local bootlegger for it. Told it was for fruitcake, he said, “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.”
One theory about our love-hate relationship with fruitcake has to do with the age we were when we first tasted it. The hallmark of a good fruitcake is a rich. blend of complex and strong flavors — adult flavors.
A child might recoil from the flavors of lemon zest, candied ginger and rum. Years later, though, the adult might be surprised at how much they’ve improved the holiday staple, though it really hasn’t changed fundamentally from its early incarnations when rum and dried fruit were necessary ingredients in a confection expected to last through winter.
A couple of points – a cake containing fruit is not necessarily fruit cake. Fruitcake is dense, complex in flavor and almost always contains rum or rum flavoring, and the fat component may range from butter to suet.
Susan Watkins, owner of J & S Watkins Homebaked Desserts in Clifton Park, was surprised when she recently got an order for fruitcake.
“That’s not something we normally get,” she said.
Watkins speculated that apart from personal taste, some people are turned off by the price. “It is very expensive to make,” Watkins said.
A 10-inch cake that would serve 20 to 30 people costs $45. It’s expensive, she explained, because of all the pricey dried fruit and nuts that are essential to the recipe.
Price Chopper spokeswoman Mona Golub said the supermarket doesn’t make fruitcakes in its bakery but sells those that others, including Freihofer’s, make.
“Sales continue to decline in fruitcakes, but there are still those who look forward to purchasing them so we make them available,” she said.
It is a “sweet treat,” according to Kurt H. Meyer of Mr. Meyer’s Bakery in Schenectady.
However, declining economic fortunes of the neighborhood led him to stop making fruitcakes. Because making fruitcake is so expensive, Meyer needs to sell a minimum number to make the effort profitable.
Fruitcake is also hard for him to make because he’s short on staff. “I’m a one-man operation.”
But his customers like it, and Meyer is consequently considering returning fruitcake to his shop.
Some people want their fruitcake moist and not overly sweet.
Schuyler Bakery in Watervliet uses a special Danish dough with a softer type of fruit in it including oranges, cherries, pineapples, walnuts, raisins and grapefruit.
“I sell probably about 100 to 150 [a season] between the one pound or two pound,” said Jay Halayko, general manager. “It’s a moist fruitcake. It’s not a sweet, sweet fruitcake.”
He lets the teenagers that work in the bakery try out the product, which was his father’s recipe and been sold at the store for 58 years.
“They all like it. I don’t tell them what it is first,” he said.
The bakery begins taking orders right after Thanksgiving and usually makes its last fruitcake by Christmas.
One customer buys 25 and freezes them for the whole year, according to Halayko.
“I’ve never had a complaint about our fruitcake,” he said.
The treat has its passionate supporters.
“I absolutely love fruitcakes and people think it’s weird.” said Cyndie Powell of Schuylerville.
She got hooked on fruitcakes in childhood, and said she likes the fact that they are very moist with candies, cherries and nuts. She likes cakes that are heavy and dense. Also, there can be some variety in fruitcakes.
“Sometimes, people put brandy in it or cognac and that always makes it interesting,” she said.
As much as she likes fruitcakes, she has never made one — even though baking is her hobby. She buys them in the supermarket during the holiday season. “When I can’t get it afterward, I’m disappointed.”