Cakes: Fruitcake Fever
Revive a centuries-old tradition at your reception
Whatâ€™s one food that lasts (nearly) as long as love? Why fruitcake, of course, which is why the confection plays the lead in a handful of enduring wedding traditions. Although fruitcake tends to get a bad rap today, up until the 1940s, it was the top-tier choice for a wedding dessert. Famed Charlestonian Emily Whaley even wrote about the dark fruitcake served at her December 1934 wedding in Mrs. Whaleyâ€™s Charleston Kitchen, although she candidly pointed out that white fruitcakeâ€”the most popular type in the South todayâ€”was actually her favorite.
The tradition began in the 16th century in Britain, when sugarcane became readily available from South American colonies and the West Indies. That early white fruitcake had the same fluffy consistency as sheet cake and was laden with fresh fruit. But dark fruitcake was made with molasses and was much more dense. So dense, in fact, that long-ago brides were forced to cut it with serrated cake saws often made of coin silver. Here in the Lowcountry, dark fruitcake was the mainstay among 17th-century Charles Towne settlers.
Because dark fruitcake doesnâ€™t easily spoil and its candied fruit stands the test of time better than its fresh counterparts, the molasses-infused confection suited wedding traditions perfectly. Youâ€™ve likely heard of keeping the top tier of wedding cake and eating it on the first wedding anniversary? And how about the custom of single guests taking home a slice, placing it under their bed pillows, and dreaming of the person they would marry? Pre-freezer days, these traditions werenâ€™t easily fulfilled by sweets other than dark fruitcakes, which could last up to a year as long as they were properly wrapped to keep insects out.
Richly flavored, especially when doused with brandy, rum, or whiskey, fruitcake is perfect for warming hearts at a wedding. Liquor not your thing? Try icing fruitcake with a basic sugar glaze or a rich Bavarian cream instead. You can even decorate the top with sprigs of holly, whole nuts, or berries to suit the season. And if youâ€™re not ready to feature fruitcake front-and-center, try it as the top tier of your wedding cake or even as a groomâ€™s cake.
For an authentic Lowcountry recipe, check out Hoppinâ€™ Johnâ€™s Lowcountry Cooking. Author John Martin Taylor says his is closest to the recipe that Charlestonâ€™s Scottish (who settled along the Cooper River) used back in colonial days. We bet that if you give this long-lost confection a fair shake (find the recipe at www.charlestonweddingsmag.com), youâ€™ll likely discover you want to save more than a slice.
Fruitcakes sporting day-glo cherries and dyed pineapple chunks are anathema to most, and understandably so. But I love a good fruitcake, drenched in bourbon or rum.
- 1 Â˝ pounds (about 3 cups) mixed dried or candied fruits, including some candied citrus peel, diced
- Âľ cup bourbon or dark rum
- 1 cup shelled nuts (pecans, walnuts, black walnuts and/or almonds in any combination) or pecan halves
- ÂĽ pound (about 1 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
- ÂĽ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened, plus butter for greasing the pans
- Â˝ cup sugar
- 3 large eggs at room temperature
- Pinch of salt
Soak the fruits in the liquor overnight.
The next day, grease a standard loaf pan with butter, line it with parchment paper, then grease it again.
Preheat the oven to 350Âş. In a large mixing bowl, toss the fruit and nuts in about ÂĽ cup of the flour. Cream together the butter and the sugar with an electric mixer. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, until the mixture is fluffy. Sift the salt and remaining flour over the fruit and nuts, tossing all together. Fold the mixture into the buytter and eggs, then turn the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 1 Â˝ hours or until a straw inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. The top should be browned and the edges should be just pulling away from the sides.
Set the cake in its pan on a rack and allow to cool for 20 minutes. Turn the cake out on a plate, and, if desired, sprinkle liberally with the liquor of your choice. Fruitcakes keep very well. Store for a month or more in a plastic bag in a cool, dark place (see above), or wrapped in liquor-soaked cheesecloth in an airtight container, before serving. Keeps for several months.
From â€śHoppin' John's Lowcountry Cookingâ€ť by John Martin Taylor, copyright 1992, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Co. Used by permission of the author.
Check out this and Johnâ€™s other books and products on his Web site: www.hoppinjohns.com.
Illustration by Lauren Roth