A little lovin’ and some fruit to bake
THIS MAY COME as a surprise, but the fruitcake that comes on table’s way every Yuletide Season was once the feast food of Vikings, Saxons, Greeks, and Romans. Although no historian can definitely say when the first fruitcake was baked, existing ancient writing and relics suggest that fruitcakes were already popular during the Iron Ages, as early as the eight century B.C.
During ancient times, people in Europe baked barley bread mixed with different fruits and nuts as a special food for their feast and tribal celebrations. Just like the serving of ham, the ‘fruited cake’ was also a traditional food offering to the deities of mythology, whether Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Greeks, or Romans. Vikings offered bread baked with various berries and nuts as a tribute to Freyr, the Norse god of crops, fruitfulness, peace, and prosperity.
The ancient Romans baked barley bread laden with pine nuts, raisins, dried fig fruits, and pomegranate seeds as a thanksgiving offer for a good harvest to the god of agriculture, Saturn. When the pagan festival of Saturnalia was incorporated in the celebration of traditional Christmas, even the food served during the occasion, like ham, cheese, and fruitcakes, were also made part of the celebration.
The earliest fruitcakes were made of barley and not wheat. The fruits added were not sugared but dried. There were more nuts (and seeds) than fruits in the mix. Among the consistent ingredients of the early fruitcakes were pomegranate seeds and raisins.
During the Medieval times, more preserved fruits were added, the types of which depended on the availability of the fruits in the region where the bread was baked. Among the often used were figs, grapes, and berries. Honey and spices were also added.
The fruitcake of old was log-shaped, hard, and brittle. This was until butter, milk, and later egg, were added to the recipe. There was even a time in Europe when the ingredients used to make fruitcakes were regulated
by the Pope. Later, in 1490, a papal edict known as the ‘Butterbrief’ or ‘butter letter’ was issued by Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492), giving permission to add butter and milk in making stollen, a North German fruitcake.
The addition of sugared or candied fruits to fruitcakes was an American accident. Around 1720s, it was discovered that a high concentration of sugar could preserve fruits for long periods of time. As such, overproduction of candied fruits became a problem. The solution was adding them together with various kinds of nuts to their wheat bread. The American fruitcake was born. By the turn of the 18th century, mail-to-order fruitcake business establishments sprouted throughout America. It became so popular that December 27 was declared ‘National Fruitcake Day’ in the United States.
Adding wine and liquor was also discovered to prolong the lifespan of fruitcakes. Again, depending on which region in Europe, beer, whiskey, bourbon, and brandy were added to the dough, initially to add flavor and tang to the resulting bread. Later, it was discovered that wrapping the fruitcakes in a liquor-soaked cloth prevented them from getting moldy and could preserve them for weeks, months, and years after baking. Similarly, adding rum to the bread mix before and after baking enhanced the taste of both dough and the other ingredients. This started in South America and spread to the United States and its colonies, including the Philippines.
The fruitcake baked in the Philippines today may be considered a blend of east and west. There is actually no single defining factor for the local fruitcake. Any fruit (from banana to pineapple) and nut (from pili to pistachio) can be added. Each region may even have its own recipe for the fruitcake. The ingredients are so varied that the only common denominator is the name fruitcake.
Brandy or Rum?
When it comes to health benefits, there is no question, brandy is the better choice. Aside from having antioxidants, it also has a milder punch just in case one overindulges. There are, however, debates to which liquor has the better flavor and texture enhancer. There is no consensus; it depends on the individual’s palate.
Whether it's brandy or rum, the alcohol added to the fruitcake makes it last for a long time and remain edible. A fruitcake baked in 1878 by Fidelia Bates remained in her family for three generations as an heirloom. In 2003, Bates’s great grandson, Morgan Ford of Tecumseh, Michigan, brought the cake to Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show and the host sampled a small piece of the 125-year-old cake. Leno said “It smelled good but tasted crystallized.”
Fruitcakes without liquor additive can last only for as long as three days exposed at room temperature before mold starts to set in. Laced with sugar, its lifespan may be extended to a week. With liquor additive and curing, it can last from several months to several years.
To prolong the lifespan of fruitcakes, the best way is to wrap them in liquor-soaked linen or cheesecloth and store them in a dark, cool place. They can be refrigerated but make sure they are in a tightly-sealed container. Do not freeze them as it will only shorten their lifespan.
Since a fruitcake contains alcohol and is mildly acidic because of the fruit content, reactive wrappers like aluminum foil should not be used on direct contact. For commercial purposes (not for storage), non-reactive plastic, waxed paper, or cloth paper may be used.
When To Best Serve Fruitcake
Different experts have different opinions. But to give a standard, fruitcakes are best served after curing or ripening for five to eight weeks after baking, depending on its size. So if planning to serve them at Noche Buena, better start preparing them from late October to mid-November.
Although fruitcakes that have been prepared can remain edible for a long time, it is recommended to consume them within two years of storage.
What Drink Goes Well with Fruitcake?
A chef, a nutritionist, a food blogger, a fruitcake maker, and a fruitcake connoisseur all have different opinions. Most consumers, however, say it’s either coffee or soft drink. Scientifically speaking, black coffee or unsweetened tea makes the best drink to go with fruitcakes. The bitterness of these drinks will balance
the sweetness and richness of flavor of the cake and caffeine in these drinks serves as digestif.
How many calories does a fruitcake have? The answer depends on the contents, amount of fruits, nuts, sugar, and liquor added. Now, to give a calculated standard, a cubic inch of fruitcake containing 50 percent dough mixture, 25 percent mixed fruits, five percent mixed nuts, 10 percent sugar, seven percent liquor, and three percent other ingredients has from 55 to 75 calories. - Ernee Lawagan