Fruitcake. It seems most people either love it or hate it. In a recent reader poll on our blog I was surprised to learn that nearly the same percentage of people say “no” to fruitcake as say “it depends.” I’ve never been a fan of fruitcake, but thought I’d do some experimenting in the kitchen to see if I could find a recipe that I liked. When I was growing up, my mother and grandmother always made fruitcakes at Christmastime, but we kids never ate them, probably due to the copious amount of spirits used to preserve the cakes. And I’ve never understood the appeal of a cake with nuclear-colored yellow, green and red fruit inside. No, thank you!
But what if we used naturally colored dried fruit instead of the candied variety? I started my search for a recipe using sun-dried fruit instead of the more traditional, brightly colored candied fruits. The first recipe I tried was for the Free Range Fruitcake by Alton Brown. I liked the variety of dried fruits in this recipe so decided to give it a go. The recipe was a bit time-intensive but the directions were clear and easy to follow. This fruitcake turned out very moist and dark with a strong rum flavor. While my mother-in-law enjoyed it, I thought the rum overwhelmed the cake. Perhaps it would have mellowed with a few more weeks of aging as Alton suggests doing. On the other hand, he recommends daily misting it with brandy to preserve the cake so I imagine the alcohol content in that cake would remain pretty high.
The next recipe I tried was the Orange, Pineapple and Walnut fruitcake from Saveur. This one had less fruit and less rum which resulted in a lighter cake with a tropical essence. It’s not a traditional fruitcake but it is delicious! I even managed to convince a fruit-averse family member to try this one and he found it to be quite tasty. It was a bit on the sweet side due to the glaze on top of the cake but it was the definite winner in our family.
Lastly I decided to try Ina Garten’s Fruitcake Cookie recipe for a change of pace. In her cookbook, Ina says these cookies regularly win over fruitcake haters. I followed the recipe precisely, including the bright red candied cherries and sherry, which I had previously avoided. They turned out beautifully, looking like a pretty Christmas cookie should. In my humble opinion their taste was fruity and not too sweet but a bit on the dry side. Next time, I think I’ll try drizzling them with a little white chocolate as another baker recommended to add some moisture and sweetness.
What’s the verdict — how DO you bake a better fruitcake? First, start with a recipe that speaks to your tastes. It’s easy to alter these recipes to use the types of fruits and spirits you prefer. Hate raisins? Swap them out for dried cranberries. Don’t like rum? Try using brandy instead. Or if you want to stay away from alcohol altogether you can substitute your favorite juice, just be sure to keep the volume of liquid the same.
While it’s been fun experimenting with different recipes, I don’t think fruitcake will become a tradition in my family (sorry grandma!). Our favorites will continue to be baking cookies, making fudge and decorating gingerbread houses. What’s your favorite holiday baking tradition?
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