Yes, fruitcake has been the butt of jokes over the years, but with millions sold annually (mostly around the holidays), fruitcake makers must be doing something right. Before you write off the oft-gifted cake—and before you automatically regift any fruitcake you get this year—check out these 10 facts about the ubiquitous Christmas baked good. And hey, try it, you just might like it!
1. Fruitcake goes waaaaay back
These days you'll find the craziest fruitcake-inspired concoctions (fruitcake coffee, anyone?), but one of the earliest versions of fruitcake can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. They would collect fruits and nuts along the banks of the Nile and make a cake they often wouldn't even eat (sound familiar?). "They'd make this kind of a cake that they'd even bury with the dead to enjoy in the afterlife," says Hayden Crawford, a partner with Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, which has been making fruitcakes since 1896 and will sell nearly 1 million of them this year. The fruitcake style we're used to seeing, however, stems from Old England and Germany. "When the sea trade started bringing spices and fruits and nuts and moving them around more freely, it became popular in both those countries around the same time because they were both strong seafaring nations."
2. Fruitcake used to be the best thing people ate all winter
Before the advent of refrigeration, homemakers would combine fruit they'd sugared and jarred in the summer with nuts from the fall harvest to create a cake they'd keep in their root cellars during cold months. "It was a celebratory cake they'd bring out at Christmas, in the dead of winter when there was nothing good to eat," says Crawford. "It would be flavors they might not have had in several months since there was no fruit, no vegetables; it was all gone by then. That's why this cake became so incredibly popular. It brought flavor when there was none to be found."
3. There's a reason why those little fruit pieces are candied
While some companies use dried fruit, most versions include fruit that's been candied or glacéd—a process the French invented hundreds of years ago that makes the fruit look almost gem-like and prevents it from turning mushy inside the cake (like apples in apple pie or berries in a cobbler would). "That allows the fruit to last," Crawford explains, "so it doesn't rot and it allows you to bake it in the oven without losing its shape."
4. Fruitcake has late-night TV to thank for all the abuse
We've all heard jokes about fruitcake, but why did everyone start picking on this particular dessert? Blame Johnny Carson. "We've pegged it back to him," says Crawford. "Back in a monologue he did in the late '70s, he said there's only one fruitcake and it just keeps getting passed around. We think he's the progenitor of that joke."
5. Fruitcake really does last for months
A good fruitcake should have a high percentage of fruit and nuts (Collin Street's version, laced with Southern pecans, is just 15 percent batter, for example), to give it the density it needs to prevent oxidization and remain shelf stable for months (which can range from 60 days to six months). That's part of the reason it became a popular mail-order holiday gift long before Amazon Prime, so that it could spend several weeks in the postal system and still be just fine when it arrived at the recipient's doorstep.
6. And in some cases, it lasts (a lot) longer
The Ford family of Tecumseh, Michigan, still has a fruitcake that was baked in 1878, making it the world's oldest known fruitcake. A great-great-great grandmother made the fruitcake just before she died and the family never could bring themselves to cut into it, instead passing it down over the years and even getting it on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (who actually took a bite) once. At last check, the Fords were still figuring out who the cake's current caretaker should be.
7. Watch out for flying fruitcakes in one Colorado town
Every January, Manitou Springs, Colorado, hosts a Great Fruitcake Toss where participants hoist leftover fruitcake into the air and compete in categories like speed, distance and accuracy. But before you think the town must really hate fruitcake, there's also a "Too Good to Toss Fruitcake Bake Off" held in conjunction with the toss.
8. The most expensive fruitcake ever cost around $1.5 million
Back in 2005, a Tokyo pastry chef spent six months creating a fruitcake decorated with 223 diamonds (one of them a 5-carat heart-shaped gem) that was put on sale at the Japanese department store Takashimaya for the equivalent of $1.65 million. That's no joke.
9. Even royalty loves fruitcake
Crawford says he's sold cakes to royalty including Princess Caroline of Monaco over the years. But the British royal family loves its fruitcake so much that Will and Kate had pastry chef Fiona Cairns create a tamarind fruit cake as a wedding cake at their 2013 nuptials. A piece of it later sold for $7,500.
10. Fruitcake had a bit part in The Godfather
There's a scene in the Coppola classic where Sonny, played by James Caan, learns that his father Vito Corleone has been shot, and then takes a phone call in his kitchen alerting him that family consigliere Tom Hagen has been kidnapped. The good news is he's still got his fruitcake. Look closely and you'll notice a fruitcake tin—one of Collin Street bakery's, actually—on the counter next to him. "It wasn't product placement," says Crawford. "It just a set designer thinking that was a piece of Americana."
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