I love fruit cake. I know, I know, I am in the minority. Fruit cake is one of the most maligned and made fun of foods out there. We’ve all heard the jokes about the one fruit cake that actually exists, but is re-gifted around the country year after year. I think the only thing some people like about the gift of fruit cake is the handy tin it comes in, great for storing cookies the rest of the year. I remember those red tins, with the Currier and Ives style Christmas scene printed on the top. We stored cookies and our favorite family snack mix in them.
But really, I love fruit cake, even the one that comes in the red tin, or the little loaves wrapped in cellophane. My mom and I are the only ones in the family who truly like fruit cake, and every year we used to buy a small store bought cake and eat it on our own. But a really good fruit cake, homemade with love, is a different thing all together. Rich and dark, sweet and sticky, spicy and boozy. After spending time in England, I came to appreciate their traditional Christmas desserts, all in the fruitcake mode – Christmas pudding, topped with flaming brandy and a sprig of holly, Christmas cake, a rich fruitcake topped with marzipan and fondant and fancifully decorated, and mincemeat pies, made with a fruity, fatty filling. And I remember fruit cake from my childhood, probably from a tin, always served with boiled custard, the Southern version of egg nog.
So it only seemed right that I learn to make a good fruit cake. I’ve worked on this for years, starting with English recipes, modifying with some ideas from old Southern community cookbooks, and adding my own touches and flavors. Lots of ginger, no nuts. And I feed my cake with Cherry Bounce, the cherry-infused bourbon I put up when the fruit is in season, just for this purpose. In England, they mark “Stir-Up Sunday,” a day especially for making the Christmas cakes that need the long feeding and resting time. It’s the last Sunday before advent and based, I am told, on a line from the Book of Common prayer, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded.” This day falls around Thanksgiving for us, so the long weekend is a great time to start your cake.
I understand some people have an objection to candied citron, so replace it with mixed candied fruit if you’d prefer. Mixed spice is a blend of cinnamon, coriander, caraway, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice and mace. It’s traditionally used in British Christmas cooking and adds a really interesting note to fruit cake. If you can’t find it, use pumpkin pie spice instead.
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup crystallized ginger pieces
½ cup candied orange peel
½ cup candied citron
½ cup candied mixed fruit
1 cup chopped candied cherries
Zest and juice of one navel orange
1-inch piece of fresh ginger, grated
2 teaspoons mixed spice or pumpkin pie spice
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 cup milk
¾ cup butter
2 2/3 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ cups bourbon, brandy or Cherry Bounce
Put the dried and candied fruits in a large saucepan with the orange zest and juice, grated ginger and mixed spice. Add the butter, milk and sugar and heat over medium until the butter has melted. Bring to a boil, remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 300°. Line a 9-inch round cake tin with parchment paper on the bottom and the sides.
Sift together the flour and baking soda and stir into the cooled fruit mixture. Beat in the eggs, then scrape the mixture into the prepared pan, smooth the top and tap the pan on the counter to remove any air bubbles. Bake the cake for 1 – 1 ½ hours, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean (after the first hour, check every 10 minutes). The cake should be quite firm. Cover the pan with a clean tea towel while it cools to keep it moist.
When the cake is cool, remove it from the pan and peel off the paper. Cut 2 pieces of foil long enough wrap the cake and lay them in a cross on the counter. Cut two pieces of waxed paper to fit over the foil. Place the cake in the center and bring the sides up to wrap. Place the wrapped cake in a cake tin or plastic container. You can also fit it back into the cleaned cake pan and cover the whole with a double layer of extra foil. Store the cake on the counter in a cool place somewhere that you will see it and remember to feed it.
Starting when you put the cooled cake in the tin, twice every week for 3 – 4 weeks, unwrap the top of the cake and poke holes in it with a thin skewer or toothpick. Drizzle ¼ cup of bourbon over the top of the cake and leave it unwrapped for about 10 minutes while the liquor to soaks in. Re-wrap the cake, put the lid on the tin and leave until next time. I put a post it note on the tin to remind myself when I last fed the cake.
Slice into thin slices and enjoy.
Serves 8 – 12, depending on how much people like fruitcake!