The Timeless Appeal of Fruit Cake

We don’t mean the dry crumbly versions, but the rich, moist treats that made Christmas time, celebratory …. even luxuriant.

By Madhulika Dash’ Photograph and recipe courtesy Chef Subhash Jana, Renaissance Lucknow Hotel

When it comes to fruit cakes, says Chef Subhash Jana (Executive Chef, Renaissance Lucknow Hotel), “there are only two ways about it: either you love it; or you cannot stand it. Interestingly, both sides of the coin are often than not dependent on what kind of fruit cake you were introduced to. Which, continues the Chef, who learnt his first fruit cake making from an European expat chef, “unfortunately these days is more of the store-brought than the home-made one. Result, one likely gets introduced to not the moist, rich version but a heavy cake that has been weighed down with an overload of dry fruits, nuts and crumbling dryness.”

Chef Jana who still works on the traditional British recipe of the cake he got from his teacher, rues the downfall of a cake that once stood for everything nice, luxuriant and worth celebrating. If you look at the evolution of the fruit cake through history, you would realise that not only they were the first of the kind cakes to be made across the world, but were developed to highlight the evolving techniques of preserving food as well as celebrating new ingredients that arrived at the place. Take for instance, the Satura, which is said to be the Great Grand Dad of both fruit bread and fruit cake celebrated nuts and pomegranate seeds soaked in spirit – old world’s finest preserve and alternative to yeast that kept the cake moist and last long. “

The cake’s ability to incorporate both seasonal as well as expensive new ingredients along with a good glug of alcohol was in fact one of the reasons that fruit cake not only became popular but soon wedged its way into the culinary fabrics across different parts of Europe (and the world) becoming an integral part of festivity and community celebration. Another reason for its popularity, says Chef Jana, “was of course the composition. Irrespective of the number of dry fruits, preserves and spices used in the cake, it was always rich – and made for a worthy gift.”

In fact, fruit cake became a symbol of a host happiness and willingness to go that extra length for their guests. The outcome the exciting variations on the fruitcake began springing up world over: Italy's dense, sweet-and-spicy panforte (literally, "strong bread") dates back to 13th century Sienna; Germany's stollen, a tapered loaf coated with melted butter and powdered sugar that's more bread-like in consistency, has been a Dresden delicacy since the 1400s and has its own annual festival; and then there's black cake in the Caribbean Islands, a boozy descendant of Britain's plum pudding where the fruit is soaked in rum for months, or even as long as a year.

What made the versions stand out was the right pairing of plums (as the collection of dry fruits, nuts and preserves) and the fact that most were home-made. Traditionally, adds Chef Jana, “people would create their own set of special mixes by preserving the fruits and spices in alcohol till that have this nice rummyness and flavour intensity – and then bake it a few days before the celebration and then allow it to rest for the taste to enhance while constantly basting it with another spirit (preferably brandy) to keep it moist. The result was this flavour dense, rich, moist cake that made for a delicious, balmy winter treat – and would pair well with egg nog, butter toddy or even ginger ale.”

The delicious nature was one of the reasons that Queen Victoria choose the fruit cake to be an unmissable part of her afternoon tea tables – and celebrations as well. In fact, she even elevated fruit cakes as the base for royal weddings as well as it was befitting of the royal taste as well.

Fruit cakes that rose in prominence during a good half of Medieval Europe, even becoming the focus of many a cake decoration trends, especially the elaborate marzipan dressage, began its downward spiral with the arrival of sugar – and eventual commercialisation. The easiness of using sugar to preserve fruits, adds sweetness effectively put an end to the traditional art of using fruits, spices, molasses and other ingredients to create the sweet flavours. It also spelled doom for old-style preserves done using alcohol. Result, cakes became overloaded with ingredients and sugar – and expensive spices was ditched for a trick called blackjack – essentially burnt sugar used to give the semblance of spices in a cake, without it having any.

The slack wasn’t just with the preserves but the mix as well, and by and by the traditional punchline of celebrations, says food historian and author Michael Krondl in his book Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, “began missing the two things that made it a popular celebration legacy - hard-to-find dried fruits and plenty of alcohol.”

Sadly, even as cake making evolved with newer technique, appliances and tools, fruit cakes, the founding member of the tribe, began falling prey to overzeal and overloading. No more were fruit cakes the reminder of a bountiful summer or testimony to a great preserving techniques, says Chef Jana, “it, like the formal cakes, became more elaborative. And in doing so, the fruit cake lost its charm- barring a few places, where old recipes still dictate the working of the sweet treat.”

In case of Chef Jana, it is a recipe that was given to him by his mentor, where in spite of the use of sugar for sweetness, a lot of the inherent taste of the fruit cake comes from the use of fresh fruit and of dry fruit pairing that have been macerated in alcohol, rum especially, says the senior culinary hand, “since it gives that cake that right moistness and taste factor without that boozy feeling. And a lot of restrain in terms of loading the fruit part of it.”

Result, a cake that is moist, rich, has a long shelf life – and as the famous TV personality Johnny Carson had infamously said, “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

In this case, concludes Chef Jana, “it is actually worth the Passover – in a good way too.”