An Ancient Treat: The Rich History of Fruitcake
Love it or hate it, fruitcake has been a winter holiday staple for a long time. You could say the earliest version was a barley, pomegranate seed, nut, raisin, and honeyed wine dessert called satura that was made in ancient Rome. It was essentially an energy bar that the Roman Legions loved to have on hand.
Panaforte is an Italian dessert, a kind of fruitcake, which contains fruits and nuts. (Printemps / Adobe Stock)
Panforte, Satura, Stollen: Middle Eastern Origins of Fruitcake
But the fruitcake (also called fruit cake or fruit bread) that we know best comes from the Middle Ages when dried fruit and spices became more widely available and Western European chefs started to make bread with fruit in it. That soon led to a variety of fruitcakes. In the 13th century, Italians created panforte (literally meaning “strong bread”), a dense sweet and spicy mixture that originated in Siena. German stollen – a tapered bread including candied fruit, nuts, and marzipan, and coated with melted butter and sugar – has been a Dresden favorite since the 1400s.
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The next big advancement for fruitcake came in the 16th century, as Europeans delighted their taste buds with sugar from the Caribbean. This new addition in the kitchen allowed people to make candied fruit. The 18 th-century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savari believed that this process preserved fruit “long after the period fixed by Nature for their duration.” Nevertheless, housewives of the time would have found that steeping cherries, plums, pears, and figs, as well as imported oranges, lemons, citrons, and limes in sugar syrup not only increased the sweetness, but that preservation was a useful tool in the kitchen.
Traditional Christmas stollen fruitcake. (nblxer / Adobe Stock)
Twelfth Night Spice and Fruit Cake
The period between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night (January 6) was an especially festive time in Elizabethan England and the 12 days of Christmas (Twelfth Night) was topped off with a large Twelfth Night spice and fruit cake. Cookbooks and household management books encouraged that people spend as much time as possible in the summer and autumn stocking their pantries in preparation for the festive season. That would have been especially important if you had a grand manor and could expect to feed 50 people or more twice daily, every day, for 12 days!
The Twelfth Night fruit cake would traditionally include a dried bean and a pea and the people who found them in their slice of cake would be declared the King and Queen of the Revels. Samuel Pepys’ 17th century Twelfth Night cake recipe mentions that the ingredients cost him almost 20 shillings and the cake was cut into 20 slices. Another recipe, taken from Lady Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, dates to 1604, and produces a huge fruitcake that was cut into an amazing 160 slices! If you’d like to try your hand at making this recipe, here it is:
“Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, on ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, put as much barme as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, all saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, them make a posset with it, & temper the Cake with the posset drinkl, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.”
Queen Victoria famously serve a fruitcake at her wedding in 1840. (Public domain)
Queen Victoria and her Wedding Fruit Cake
Fruitcake that was prepared with butter and sugar was declared “sinfully rich” for a time in the 18th century and was even banned in some parts of Europe. But by Victorian times, fruitcake had gained popularity once again and was prepared served as wedding cake. Queen Victoria famously had a fruitcake for her wedding that was topped with a spun-sugar figure of Britannia. Wedding guests would traditionally put a small slice of the fruitcake under their pillows, with the hope that their dreams would reveal their future marriage partner.
These days there are many fruit, nut, and spice options available for creating a personalized fruitcake. For fruits, traditional recipes may include some of the following: raisins, currants, cranberries, cherries, pineapple, lemon, orange, and dates. Popular nut options for fruitcakes are walnuts and pecans. Most fruitcakes will include cinnamon, but you’ll find recipes including spices such as nutmeg, cloves, ginger, mace, or allspice.
100-year-old fruitcake found amongst almost 1,500 artifacts conserved from a group of buildings at Cape Adare in the Antarctic. It was probably left behind by Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. (Antarctic Heritage Trust)
Long Live the Fruitcake!
Fruitcakes can last for a long time. One of the ways bakers can increase the cake’s shelf life is with the addition of alcohol. People will often “season” their fruitcake by sprinkling on rum, brandy, port, sherry or a liqueur. Oftentimes the process is repeated every week or so – keeping the cake moist, adding flavor, and helping to preserve it for months, years, or even decades!
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Last year, explorers were surprised to come across a fruitcake in Antarctica’s oldest building, a hut on Cape Adare. It was made by the British Biscuit Company and found wrapped in paper inside a corroded tin. The cake was probably left behind by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott during his 1910 to 1913 Terra Nova expedition, making it over 100 years old. The wondrous properties of fruitcake preservation have been brought to light with this cake, which researchers say is in “excellent condition” and with a smell that suggests it’s “almost edible.” This may be the best compliment some people would offer fruitcake in general!
The topping of a fruitcake also has an impact on its taste. Many times fruitcake is topped with marzipan (an almond and sugar or honey icing) and then either royal icing or fondant. Another option is adding a sprinkling of powdered sugar or a sugary glaze on top. At Ancient Origins we’ve created our very own fruitcake recipe that does not include any topping. This allows the cake’s flavors and texture to shine and provide an initiation into the world of fruitcake for people who may have been hesitant to try baking it before.
Finding a fruitcake recipe to suit your taste buds can be a tricky feat. But you should test out different fruit and/or nut combinations, maybe try varieties with and without alcohol, see if you like different toppings, and expand your search area to include various cultures’ opinions on what makes a good fruitcake. You’ll almost certainly find a version of this iconic dessert to make your own!
Our FRUITCAKE RECIPE is available HERE, in the December 2020 Issue of AO Magazine.
Top image: The fruitcake has a long history and there are many variations of the same. Source: vaaseenaa / Adobe Stock
By Alicia McDermott