The Folklore Project
The Fruitcake Revival Project
By Robert Thead
The South can’t claim the fruitcake — most cultures have some sort of early-winter baked good containing fruit and nuts — but we can claim Truman Capote and Ferrol Sams, two authors who honored the specialty in Christmas-themed short stories. Fruitcake lore and baking is a revered autumn tradition in our house and the first signal that Christmas is coming.
Capote’s story, “A Christmas Memory,” is the more well-known of the two. In it, a 7-year-old Capote (Buddy), his eccentric “sixty-something” Aunt Sook and their rat terrier, Queenie, traverse Monroeville, Alabama, gathering fruitcake supplies and preparing for Christmas. One state over, Ferrol Sams’ "Christmas Gift!” is a short story of his childhood Christmas memories on his family’s ancestral farm in Fayette County, Georgia. The fruitcake, baked by the author’s Aunt Sack, plays a minor, but important role in this sentimental memoir.
Both stories are set during the depths of the Depression, yet somehow each aunt cobbled together the resources to make fruitcake. At that time, the ingredients each aunt used were hard to come by: candied fruit, spices — not to mention butter and eggs. Both Aunts and families sacrificed a lot to maintain continuity in all of their Christmas rituals (Aunt Sook keeps a year-round “Fruitcake Fund” to finance their operation) and in the lives of the children. Clinging to tradition, even through the worst of times, is something Southerners understand.
The aunts’ sacrifice for the sake of heritage inspired me to do my part in the revival of this autumn ritual and rescue the cake from worn out Johnny Carson jokes and modern antipathy. I can also share this Southern tradition with friends and family, whether they like it or not. Fruitcake baking is also a good reason to revisit and share these two stories each year.
The fruitcake carries a stigma for good reason: A mediocre fruitcake is not very good. And often, these dense, fruit- and nut-filled cakes come in portions that are just too big. A little fruitcake goes a long way, something neither Aunt Sook nor Aunt Sack would care to acknowledge, and a fact that is not stressed in most fruitcake recipes. But, over the years, through trial and error — and, hard to come by, honest feedback — I have developed a fruitcake recipe and curing method that results in manageable portions, so that no fruitcake recipient is standing there thinking, “What the hell am I going to do with five pounds of fruitcake?”
This basic recipe will make about eight small fruitcakes using a standard “mini-loaf pan.”’ This sounds like a lot, but the recipe is designed so that there is no leftover candied fruit, since it is rarely used outside of fruitcakes or Christmas baking. I doubt either Aunt Sook or Aunt Sack would look kindly upon any sort of waste. I’ve based the recipe, in parts, on what can be gleaned from Aunt Sack and Aunt Sook, and I attempt to incorporate elements of each. The recipe is also easily scalable if you want to make more.
I make a light, as opposed to a dark, fruitcake. The difference is whether you choose to use refined white sugar instead of brown sugar and molasses for sweetener, resulting in the actual cake part being either yellowish or a dark brown. This is a matter of preference, but the light puts the ingredients on full display so that when sliced thinly, as Sams wrote, the light fruitcake allows you to clearly see “through the cherries and pineapple and citron as beautifully as through medieval stained glass.”
For several years I made dark fruitcake since the good people at Penton’s Feed and Seed, a farm store in the Florida Panhandle where my in-laws buy horse feed, would give me a good deal on sorghum molasses made the old fashioned way: using a mule, stone mill and giant iron boiler. But that molasses is just going to have to find another use this year. Local or foraged ingredients add an appreciated, personal touch; I usually use Georgia pecans that my wife’s uncle procures. One year, I used dates that my wife and bought that summer on a trip to Jordan.
Even in the 21st century, several of the ingredients can be hard to come by. The first year I made fruitcake, I went to 10 different grocery stores in Washington, D.C., looking for candied fruit, until I finally found some at a Wal-Mart. Since then, I order most items online. Candied fruit does show up in grocery stores around this time of year, especially in the South, but sometimes the choices (and sizes) can be limited. Do you know where to find currants? This is definitely one of those cooking projects that you want to plan for.
Here’s what you’ll need:
1 copy of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”
1 copy of Ferrol Sams’s “Christmas Gift!”
8 ounces of candied green cherries
8 ounces of candied red cherries
8 ounces of candied citron
8 ounces of candied pineapple
1 pound of currants (raisins will do, if you just can’t find currants)
8 ounces of pecans (it has to be pecans)
8 ounces of pitted dates
3 cups butter
3 cups white sugar
1 cup white Caro syrup
3 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon each of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice
1 cup whole milk
3 cups brandy (some prefer bourbon or whiskey)
Airtight and lightproof container (if not lightproof you can cover it with a towel)
Soak fruit (except dates) and nuts in ½ cup of brandy for two hours before cooking. You can go up to 24 hours, but any longer and the fruit will begin to break down from the alcohol. I want the fruit to maintain its color and shape. Soaking the fruit in booze also separates the pieces, since it usually comes out of the package stuck together in a sugary ball. If you soak in red wine, it will color the batter, making it darker.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare mini loaf pans (butter and line with parchment paper), or use a non-stick spray (more on this below).
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar, then beat in eggs. Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and spices; mix into butter in two batches, add in milk and Caro between batches. Stir in soaked fruit and chopped nuts. Ladle or spoon batter into prepared pans. Into each pan insert two or three dates each, end-to-end.
Bake in preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes. Allow cake to cool slightly before carefully removing fruitcake from loaf pan to a rack to cool. Use a rack, or whatever surface you can to vent air underneath the cooling cakes, because you want the bottom of the fruitcake to stay firm, and not soggy.
Note on preparing pans and sticking issues: Before you begin baking in earnest, do a trial run of one cake, regardless if you decide to make several batches of “mini-loaf” fruitcakes or just a few big ones. Some of that candied fruit will make direct contact with the baking dish, and when its sugar caramelizes, the cake will stick something fierce. There are various methods for greasing a pan, from a traditional “prepared pan” — greased and flour-dusted — to lining with parchment paper, or just using good old nonstick cooking spray, like Pam.
Whatever method you choose, I encourage you to make a single tester cake before going full-steam ahead with your own fruitcake factory. You do not want to make a fixable mistake on a huge batch of fruitcakes. It’s frustrating as hell, and expensive, especially if you had to order ingredients online. Please learn from my mistakes.
In both the Sams and Capote stories, curing the fruitcake (dousing it in alcohol and letting it sit in the dark) is the important last step in their preparation. Alcohol adds spice, wholeness, and most importantly, it tempers the sweetness of the fruit. Capote’s story takes place sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas (“a morning in late November”). The fruitcake in “Christmas Gift!” Is made “well before Thanksgiving so that it would season.” So, we know that both Aunt Sook and Aunt Sack planned for curing (although it was Prohibition and, of course, neither family kept alcohol inside the home).
An ideal cure time is at least one month (some people swear by a year), which is why I prefer to make them before Thanksgiving. Making fruitcake this early also completes most of our Christmas baking. It’s not much work to keep the fruitcakes from getting moldy, but for the uninitiated who don't normally have food sitting around their homes in various states of fermentation, I can understand a bit of shyness regarding the curing process.
Cut cheesecloth into 48-inch. Once cooled, wrap fruitcake in cheesecloth and apply enough booze to soak the cheesecloth, but not the fruitcake. I have found that using a plastic condiment bottle like you would find in restaurant is a good way to apply the booze during curing. Keep the fruitcakes in a dark place. I store the cakes in a (sanitized) plastic tub, which I cover with a blanket to keep out the light.
In general, the alcohol, sugar content, and density of the cakes will prevent most molds. You don’t want to soak the cakes themselves, only the cheesecloth they’re covered in. The rule is, you can always add more. If you do oversoak the cakes, mop up the excess, leave the container cracked so air can circulate, and rotate the cakes every day or so since gravity will cause the booze to collect at the bottom of the cake. Be sure to check closely for any signs of mold.
You want to give the cakes time to cure after applying booze, but before giving them out or serving. Last year, my wife’s grandmother came to D.C. for a visit, and one night after dinner my wife proposed we break into some of that year’s newly minted (and seasoned) cakes. Grandmother is a teetotaler, but a good Southerner; the fruitcakes were at that point more or less brandy bombs. After watching her politely eat around the liquor-soaked fruit in an obvious episode of morals versus manners, she said, “Honey, these cakes are, well, it’s just too spicy for my taste.” My bad, Grandmother.
When are the fruitcakes ready? I prefer two months of curing. But, they’re ready when you say they are. Keep a date in mind about when you want to begin giving them away and dial back the application of booze for a few days so that they aren’t too moist when you give them away.
Most people don’t like fruitcake, and, outside of Grandmothers and those with good manners, be prepared for your presentation of a fruitcake to be met with apprehension, or outright mocking by your less civilized peers. But, don’t let their lack of history or need of exposure to Southern authors deter you from participating in this Southern ritual.
Traditions are important. The trouble that Aunts Sack and Sook go to prevent theirs from disappearing during one of the darkest periods of the South underscore their importance. I’ve made fruitcakes for a while now, and don’t see this as my attempt to artificially create a new tradition, but reconnect with an old one.
I always place a fruitcake aside for my wife’s family’s Christmas night gathering in Jay, Florida, right over the Alabama border in the Panhandle. More than a hundred adults and children usually show up, the extended family of what was once 14 brothers and sisters living in a three-bedroom farmhouse. Last year, those hundred-odd in-laws ate, or at least had intention of eating, half of my contribution to the potluck.
I like to think that one year, my fruitcake’s presence at the buffet line will become as expected as Grandmother’s creamed corn, or the massive fireworks display my father-in-law will provide the guests. Even if the cake’s presence is the butt of a joke, I will feel like I have made some progress. Just as long as someone remembers.
One day, it will be up to my wife and me to continue this Christmas night tradition in her family’s ancestral farmhouse. As long as I am able, there will be fruitcake available for those brave enough to challenge modern Yuletide convention to share in the legacy of Aunts Sook and Sack. I’m sure that by that point I’ll probably have both stories memorized.