Culinary legend claims that ancient Egyptians placed an early version of the fruit cake on the tombs of loved ones, perhaps as food for the afterlife. You’ve probably received one of those original fruit cakes, re-packaged and shipped through the mail. Johnny Carson, former host of The Tonight Show, famously quipped that there is only one fruit cake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other over and over again. When you think about it, those Old World fruit cakes make perfect sense. How best to use the abundant fruits and nuts of the harvest season, bake them into a treat, and serve them in the colder winter months? Well, of course, you use copious amounts of alcohol, and a sweetener like molasses, honey or sugar.
Fruit cakes became common in Roman times, when pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and barley mash were mixed together to form a ring-shaped dessert. Prized for their portability and shelf life, fruit cakes traveled to battlefields with Roman soldiers. Later, in the Middle Ages, preserved fruit, spices and honey were added to the mix, and fruit cakes gained popularity with Crusaders.
With the colonies providing a boon in cheap raw materials, sixteenth-century fruit cakes contained cupfuls of sugar, which added another density booster to the cake. Each successive century seemed to contribute yet another element, like alcohol during the Victorian era, until the fruit cake became weighty with the cumulative harvests of the seasons. In fact, by the early eighteenth century, fruit cake became synonymous with decadence and was outlawed in Europe, where it was proclaimed “sinfully rich.” The law was eventually repealed, since fruit cake had become an important part of the tea hour, particularly in England.
Any modern discussion of fruit cake brings out the opinions of dedicated fruit cake lovers and committed fruit cake haters. Sometimes voices are raised. But, really, what can be so bad about the combination of cake, fruit and a little (or a lot of) alcohol? So, in the interest of keeping heavenly peace in houses divided on the subject, read on for two versions which include the best of tradition and an updated style for contemporary palates.