How Did the Fruitcake Become so Popular For Holidays?
Who hasn't tasted a fruitcake? If you have browsed through a holiday gift display in your local department store, you have most certainly seen a fruitcake or two in the offering. A fruitcake is almost always included on a holiday dessert menu and can usually be found tucked away in a corner at a holiday office party. Chances are, you will find yourself presented with this sticky sweet fruity confection at some point during the holiday season. But what makes the hearty sweet cake so popular?
Fruitcake is not at all a modern concoction, but rather, dates back to the early medieval period when the cooks in rich families began experimenting with sweet breads. Old World cooks would hoard their most expensive cooking
ingredients so they could be combined into a particularly special treat for the holidays. The basic ingredients include the finest wheat flour, white sugar, eggs, sweet butter, and exotic dried fruits. Certain sweet breads might also contain rich fruit filling such as almond paste, which is known as marzipan.
In Germany, the fruitcake is known as Stollen, and is credited to the city of Dresden. A traditional Stollen is oblong in shape, with each end tapered and a ridge running down the middle. It contains raisins, currants, rum or brandy, candied peels and almonds. The Stollen is first baked, then melted butter is brushed on and sugar is sprinkled, then additional fruit pieces are sprinkled over the finished loaf.
In New Orleans, the fruitcake is called King Cake and is traditionally served as a Mardi Gras treat. Although similar in its ingredients to the traditional Christmas fruitcake, the Twelfth Night cake originated before Christian times and was developed from ancient Arab recipes. It contains a basic yeast-based brioche and fruits and nuts. The cook often adds a dried bean or coin to the cake batter so it can discovered by one lucky person who will enjoy good fortune throughout the year.
Regardless of what it is called, the fruitcake is known as an international symbol of holiday abundance and tradition. It has been said that the fruitcake lives forever, and there are a number of anecdotal stories of fruit cakes being passed on from one generation to the next. An article appeared in the New York Times on Christmas Day 1983, written by a man who claimed to have inherited a fruitcake baked by a relative in 1794 as a gift for George Washington, but the President thought the cake was inappropriate and refused the Christmas gift. It is a tradition in some families to pass a traveling fruticake back and forth between themselves, with each family "babysitting" the cake for a year until it is passed on.
In Anglo countries, the traditional holiday fruit cake may be served on Christmas Eve by a family member dressed in a Santa Costume, making the evening both traditional and memorable.
Because of its deep cultural roots that span hundreds of years, the fruitcake will undoubtedly remain a symbol of holiday abundance for many generations to come.
One of the author's favorite holiday traditions is to serve a Christmas fruitcake and eggnog after the gifts have been opened on Christmas morning. To make the day more festive, she dresses in a traditional Mrs. Santa dress on Christmas Day.