Hold the jokes. A little respect, please, for fruitcake, one of the most commonly served cakes at holiday time throughout the world.
Only a few cultures preserve the dense style of fruitcake familiar to many Americans. Germany’s stollen is traditional fruitcake, with citrus zest in the dough, plus candied fruits, nuts and heavy flavorings of cardamom and cinnamon. Italy’s panforte, and the Caribbean’s Christmas cake (made with rum) are similarly dense. Slightly lighter and crumbly (but equally spirited) is Scotland’s whisky Dundee.
Some holiday cakes with candied or dried fruits and nuts are more bread-like. These include the cardamom-flavored julekake from Norway, Spain’s three kings cake and Italy’s panettone, which is now very popular in South America.
Outside the fruitcake family are Japan’s Christmas cake, a sponge cake frosted with whipped cream and often decorated with strawberries, and France’s bûche de Noël—sponge cake rolled with fillings of buttercream and formed into a log. “It’s a centerpiece as well as a dessert,” says Alice Medrich, the author of numerous cookbooks, including Chocolate Holidays: Unforgettable Desserts for Every Season (Artisan, 2005).
For a fruitcake that is contemporary, wine friendly and a great accompaniment to a cheese tray, Medrich offers her dried-fruit and nut cake. “It is versatile and delicious, it keeps for weeks, makes a great gift, [and] can be made with even less sugar,” she says.
Dried Fruit & Nut Cake
Recipe adapted from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich (Artisan, 2007)
Say goodbye to those artificially colored bits of candied fruit that you’ve come to expect from fruitcake—this recipe is chock-full of deliciously moist dried fruit and crunchy nuts. Be inventive with the great variety of dried fruits now available. The cake’s sweet and nutty flavors pair perfectly with cheese made from sheep’s milk. Try Campo de Montalban from La Mancha, Spain, Istara P’Tit Basque or the raw-milk Tomme de Brebis from Hope Farm in Vermont.
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar, preferably muscovado
1 cup dried fruit, such as apricots, plums, pluots, pears and peaches
2 cups moist dates, quartered
3 cups walnuts, halved
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 300°F. Spray either one 9×5-inch, 8-cup loaf pan or two 8×4-inch, 4-cup loaf pans with vegetable oil, or line bottom and sides with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour with the baking soda, baking powder and salt to combine. Add the brown sugar, all of the dried fruit, dates and the walnuts. Mix thoroughly with your fingers and set aside.
In a small bowl, beat the eggs with the vanilla until light and fluffy. Pour the egg mixture over the dry ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon or your hands until all the fruit and nuts are coated with batter. Scrape into the prepared pan.
Bake until the top of the cake is deep golden brown and the batter seems set, about 1 hour for smaller loaves and 10-15 minutes longer for a large loaf. If the cake appears to be browning too much, form aluminum foil into a loose tent and place on top. Allow cake to cool in the pan on a rack.
When completely cool, remove the cake from the pan. Wrapped tightly in foil or plastic wrap, the cake keeps for several weeks at room temperature or at least 3 months in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen for at least 6 months. Makes one large loaf cake or two small ones.
Wine pairing: Alice Medrich recommends enjoying this cake with a plate of manchego cheese and a glass of non-vintage González Byass Matusalem Oloroso Dulce Muy Viejo 30 Años Sherry. This sophisticated update of the holiday fruitcake complements the manchego’s nuttiness and the Sherry’s notes of dried raisins, roasted fruit, and peanut M&Ms.