Recipe: What’s Nuttier Than a Fruitcake?

Spoiler alert: nothing

Photography by Russell van Kraayenburg November 30, 2014 Published in the December 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

There exists a dessert that is coveted on one side of the Atlantic and despised on the other, a holiday treat with the special power to sow conflict among otherwise peaceful peoples. To understand this contested comestible, one needs only look at a family—my family—led by two people from opposite sides of the pond. It all played out in Cypress, where two continents met and I was raised. 

My American mother considered the annual fruitcake sent by her mother-in-law an insult, an opinion quite in line with her nation’s long-held tradition that to receive a fruitcake is, more or less, to receive a slap in the face. My South African father, contrarily, viewed these edible bricks as a welcome nod to his childhood, and as the true gifts they were. 

Or should have been. The particular fruitcake that showed up on our doorstep each December 23 was, alas, a vile attempt at keeping tradition alive (sorry, Dad). 

The fruitcake has a reputation for defying death and expiration dates, a necessity during the days before refrigeration, and as such earns our grudging respect. What other baked good can be shipped via snail mail, tossed wearily into the pantry, forgotten for months, and then reemerge at least semi-edible? But if the idea of fruitcake is superb, the execution—that random assortment of candied, seasonally irrelevant fruits and unfortunately paired dry nuts packed into a dense cake—is usually disastrous.

In the spirit of reconciliation, however, I have come up with my own recipe, one guaranteed to please fruitcake fans and foes alike. Sure, it takes two days minimum to make, plus weeks if not months to develop the subtle flavors that only come with a constant basting in brandy. But it also tastes great right out of the oven.

Recipe: Brandy Fruitcake

  • 2 c. dried apple slices or chunks
  • 1 c. dried pear slices or chunks
  • 1/4 c. candied orange zest
  • 2 tbsp. candied lemon zest
  • 1 c. brandy
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 c. flour
  • 3/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp. ground mace
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 c. milk
  • 1/2 c. chopped pecans
  • 1/2 c. chopped walnuts

Soak the dried fruit and candied zest (see instructions) in the brandy overnight. You can also simmer the fruit in the liquor for 20 minutes to hydrate it quicker. Drain the excess brandy from the fruit, set aside the fruit, and discard the brandy.

Preheat an oven to 325°. Line a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix until blended completely. 

In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace, baking powder, and baking soda. Add half of the dry mixture to the butter mixture and mix until blended. Add the milk and mix until blended. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix until the batter is smooth.

Add the drained fruit and the nuts, mixing well to ensure that they are evenly distributed.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. 

Remove the cake from the oven and place on a wire rack. Once cool, remove the pan and parchment paper, brush with additional brandy, wrap in parchment paper and then cling wrap or another airtight wrap, and store in a dry, cool place indefinitely, opening it every few days and brushing the outside with brandy. With constant basting, this cake can last for many months, although we suggest enjoying it within one.  

How to dry fruit: Preheat an oven to 200°F. Slice 2 large apples and 1 large pear into 1/16-inch-thick slices. Dip the slices into a mixture of 1 cup water and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Pick any seeds out and arrange the slices in one layer on parchment paper–lined baking sheets. Bake for 4 to 6 hours, flipping each piece once halfway through. Cook until the fruit is dried out and firm.

How to make candied zest: Carefully cut long, slender strips of orange and lemon zest from 2 oranges and 1 lemon with a citrus zester or paring knife, taking care not to include the white pith. Place the zest in cold water and bring to a boil. Drain and repeat 2 more times to remove the bitterness. Then place the drained and dried zest into a pot with 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the zest begins to turn translucent. Drain the syrup from the zest, toss in a bowl filled with 1/2 cup granulated sugar, and arrange on parchment paper to dry.

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