Saturday, December 25, 2010

Make No Mistake About Fruitcake

Fruitcake made with cherries, cranberries, lemon peels, raisins, walnuts,
and coated with marzipan and fondant icing.
If you asked me one year ago, I'd have assured you that few foods are as vile and as pointless as the fruitcake. Heavy, dry, artificially-cloying and dotted with candied kryptonite-like "fruit" bits which always tasted nasty (even to a non-superhuman like me), I winced inwardly whenever I spotted slices of this logic-defying confection paraded on wedding tables as wedding favours.

It therefore came as no surprise that I flinched perceptibly when, in my endeavour to be a doting wife earlier this year, I encouraged my husband to name a dish he would like me to whip up for him, and he said: "Fruitcake". My response somehow segued from muted revulsion to skeptical curiosity as my husband patiently made his case for fruitcakes which contain real fruits and are moist, smooth and flavoursome. Really? Can it be?

Well, the gauntlet had been thrown and I was irrevocably obliged to bake a fruitcake that my husband would appreciate. I knew I needed help, and I turned to one of my favourite baking authors, Rose Levy Beranbaum, or rather, her book. Reading the recipe for a fruitcake in Rose's Heavenly Cakes was an exercise in uttering reluctantly appreciative "Hmms". Hmm, so real ingredients actually go into a fruitcake: high-quality glacéed fruit (Hmm, I can see how those would taste superior to luminous green cherries), raisins and rum (Hmm, can't go wrong with this pairing), pecans and walnuts (Hmm, yummy nuts), and cake ingredients (Hmm, there's actually cake in it). As a baking enthusiast, I could not help but allow the words I read in the recipe tear down my blinkers of prejudice because given a reliable recipe and barring any failure in execution, good ingredients always beget a good product.

And the baked product was indeed good. Just as my husband represented, it was moist, smooth and flavoursome. And the really wonderful thing is, a fruitcake improves in taste as it matures. Think aged beef or aged cheese and you'll know what I mean. At as young as three weeks old, the fruitcake already acquired a subtly seductive complexity. My delighted husband declared it to be the best fruitcake he ever had. And for me, it was the best humble pie (or cake) I ever had to eat.

I made another fruitcake for Christmas this year and decided to frost this one to give it a festive feel. It was my first time working with marzipan and fondant and I must say that it was addictively fun. Making the green holly and berries was easy enough:

Equipment / Materials
- Small paring knife
- Some marzipan (I used the left-overs from the marzipan used to cover the fruitcake)
- Red food colouring
- Green food colouring
- Small bottle cap
- Disposable gloves

For the holly leaves
a. Put on the gloves to prevent staining your hands.
b. Mix a few drops of the green food colouring with a small piece of marzipan and knead until you get the desired shade of green.
c. Roll out the green marzipan into a sheet which is about a quarter-inch thick.
d. Cut out almond-shaped "leaves" on a cutting board with the knife.
e. Use the small bottle cap to clip away at the outline of each leaf to make an inverted scallop pattern.
f. To create the veins on the leaves, press the back of the knife on each leaf length-wise, and then repeat for the upward-sweeping slanted veins which stem from the centre vein.
g. Stand back and marvel at how easy it was.
h. Allow to dry at room temperature for a day or two.

For the holly berries
a. Mix a few drops of the red food colouring with a small piece of marzipan and knead until you get the desired shade of red.
b. Pinch a small piece of the red marzipan and roll it between your palms to create a small ball. That's your holly berry / red currant / cranberry.
c. Allow to dry at room temperature for a day or two.

Finally, I share below my thoughts and tips on making a fruitcake:

1. Get a reliable recipe - I followed the Fruitcake Wreath recipe in Rose's Heavenly Cakes which has proven to be highly reliable but I've also read excellent reviews on Alton Brown's Free Range Fruitcake Recipe. Try a recipe that's remotely dubious and you are on your own.

2. Use good ingredients - A fruitcake can be very costly to make after you factor in the glacéed fruits, the nuts, the marzipan, the fondant, and the copious amount of booze needed to both macerate the glacéed fruits AND feed the cake over time. If you have already decided to undertake this expensive labour of love, do yourself a favour and buy the best ingredients you can find and afford. Skimping on the ingredients will only undermine your efforts.

3. Intoxicate your fruitcake - If you want to keep your fruitcake for some time, and by some time, I mean months or years, splash some rum over your fruitcake every 3 months or so. This will help keep it moist and happy.

4. Be prepared to lose some refrigerator real estate - If you intend to consume your fruitcake slowly over the months or year, do remember that the fruitcake is a space hog. No, not the porcine creature but an occupier of considerable and valuable space in your ever shrinking refrigerator. Not much you can do about it but it's good to think ahead.

5. Do not refrigerate the iced fruitcake - If you want to retain the satiny and matte finish on your fondant icing, remember not to refrigerate the iced fruitcake. The condensation that occurs when you remove your iced fruitcake from the refrigerator will not be pretty.

6. Plan ahead - If you intend to make an iced fruitcake for an occasion, plan ahead. Depending on the recipe you use, macerating the dried fruits can take up to a week and drying the marzipan can take anything from a day up to a week (depending on whether the marzipan is store-bought or homemade).

Happy Holidays, everyone!


  1. brava! beautifully written and i'm proud to be part of it!!

    happy holidays,


  2. Thanks very much, Rose. I am a great admirer of your writing myself and your kind words must have just shaved 5 kg (or 11 lbs) off my weight!

  3. Well done, Ah Zhen! Not only did you conquer the fruitcake but you certainly got a golden seal of approval from one of the best in the field, Rose Levy Beranbaum.
    Very impressive! I love Rose!

    I usually get very lazy and just whip up a simple buttermilk fruit loaf when I crave fruitcake because I haven't yet summoned the courage to attempt a real Christmas fruit cake with all the trappings.

    Thanks for sharing in detail your experiences. By the way, it is a very pretty cake you made.

  4. Hi bubble and squeak, thank you for your lovely note and for dropping by. A buttermilk fruit loaf sounds delicious - I shall try baking a loaf myself! Happy New Year!

  5. I must admit that I can't remember hating fruitcake in the past but after I made it one year a decade or so ago, I don't understand why people have such an aversion to it. After that first successful attempt I have grown a strong affinity to this monthly matured loaf. If I see it on a sweet tray it will always be tested by my palate. Not that I have not had bad fruitcake, but it has never put me off. It has been awhile since I have had a good light fruit cake but I have had lots of tasty dark ones

  6. Hi Anonymous, as a new convert, I'll be sure to reach for a slice of fruitcake if I see fruitcake on a sweet tray from now on. Except for those which contain candied green cherries, that is. Happy New Year to you!

  7. Beautiful cake! Rose's recipe is incredible. It never lasts long enough in our house to get a proper curing.

  8. From jaw-dropping to mouth-watering... You're such a gem!

  9. When I was growing up we would have a long weekend due to teacher's convention in November. My mother and I would do the fruitcakes then. They were so chock full of dates and fruit and nuts with just enough
    batter to hold them together. We made little mini ones, not the large loaf ones. When cooled I began the month long process of basting them
    regularly with brandy until they were ready for Christmas Eve serving. We stored them up in the unheated attic to keep them cool. Now-a-days I
    only make them every few years...makes the anticipation even more delicious. We used the recipe in my mother's 1950's Better Homes and Garden Cookbook.

  10. @Vicki: Thanks for dropping by. Maybe you can keep your next fruitcake under lock and key! This is one instance where delayed gratification is truly gratifying.

    @Kookie: Thanks! Trust that you are keeping well.

    @Elizabeth: Mini ones sound like a good idea. Easier to serve too!