Fruitcake has become a quintessential Christmas dessert. The history of fruitcake dates back to Roman times, when fruitcake recipes contained pomegranate seeds, raisins, and pine nuts mixed into barley mash. Today’s fruitcakes are heavy cakes made with sugar, flour, eggs, chopped candied fruit or dried fruit, nuts, and spices. Learn more about fruitcake history to understand how this sweet and colorful treat became a holiday favorite.
Exploring Fruitcake History
Roman Times to the Middle Ages
Fruitcake in Roman times was brought into battle by soldiers, because the cake did not spoil and could be transported with ease. It was not until the Middle Ages that spices, preserved fruit, and honey were added to fruitcake. After learning that it was possible to preserve fruit by soaking it in high concentrations of sugar, Europeans began to import fruits from other parts of the world and preserve it by candying it. As a result, Europeans were able to add not only native candied fruits like plums and cherries to their fruitcake, but also tropical fruits.
Outlawed in the Early 18th Century
In the early 18th century, fruitcakes were outlawed in continental Europe because they were considered “sinfully rich,” though they eventually came back into fashion in England.
19th Century Rise
Between 1837 and 1901, fruitcake was an extremely popular treat in England and no Victorian tea was complete without one. By the 19th century, fruitcake typically contained citrus peel, pineapple, dates, pears, cherries, and plums. Fruitcake spread throughout the New World and was especially popular in areas where fresh fruit was not widely available. Nuts were a popular addition to fruitcakes in the United States, as most fruitcake makers were located in Southern communities where cheap nuts were available.
Fruitcake at Christmas
Although it is not completely clear why fruitcake became a Christmas staple, some people believe that it is tied to the holiday season, because English people passed fruitcake slices out to poor women who sang Christmas carols on the street in London.
20th Century Decline
Some believe that fruitcakes became unpopular in the early 20th century with the advent of mass-produced, mail-order fruitcakes. These fruitcakes were notoriously dry and tasteless and were covered in garish-looking candied fruits. Furthermore, mass-produced fruitcakes were made with cheap, inferior ingredients. Considering how unpleasant these fruitcakes were to eat, it is no surprise that they came to be frowned upon.
What Modern Fruitcake Entails
Fruitcake gets a bad rap these days and is often the butt of people’s jokes. In fact, there is even a fruitcake toss each year in Colorado, giving people the opportunity to toss their unwanted fruitcakes. However, despite its decline in popularity over the years, fruitcake is still an important part of many people’s holiday traditions. Some versions of fruitcake are iced and decorated. Fruitcake is typically served at weddings and on Christmas. Because it is so rich, most fruitcake is served alone without cream, butter or other condiments. Fruitcakes are also often soaked in alcohol, which gives them a longer shelf life.
Fruitcake Around the World
Recipes for fruitcake vary widely from one country to another. Germany’s traditional fruitcake is called stollen. It is shaped like a loaf and covered with powdered sugar on the outside. Stollen is typically made with raisins, almonds, yeast, butter, water, flour, and zest. Panforte is a chewy and dense fruitcake from Italy that is flavored with spices. In the Bahamas, fruitcake is drenched with rum and contains candied fruits, walnuts, and raisins.
Making Your Own Fruitcake
If you want to try making homemade fruitcake, Christmas is a great time to give it a go. In order to be considered successful, a fruitcake must be moist and have a variety of flavors.
Most fruitcake experts agree that fruitcake should be made at least one month in advance of its eating or gifting so that its flavors have a chance to deepen. Bakers may also choose to pour rum, whiskey or brandy over the finished loaf to make it denser and moister.
Whether you love or hate fruitcake, there is no denying that the history of fruitcake is fascinating. Keep this information in mind, and it is possible that you will not look at fruitcake the same way again!