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The History Of Fruitcake

Fruitcakes are holiday and wedding cakes which have a very heavy fruit content. They require special handling and baking to obtain successful results. The name “fruitcake” can be traced back only as far as the Middle Ages. It is formed from a combination of the Latin fructus, and French frui or frug. The oldest reference that can be found regarding a fruitcake dates back to Roman times. The recipe included pomegranate seeds. Pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash. Honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added during the Middle Ages. Crusaders and hunters were reported to have carried this type of cake to sustain themselves over long periods of time away from home.

1400s – The British began their love affair with fruitcake when dried fruits from the Mediterranean first arrived.

1700s – In Europe, a ceremonial type of fruitcake was baked at the end of the nut harvest and saved and eaten the next year to celebrate the beginning of the next harvest, hoping it will bring them another successful harvest. After the harvest, nuts were mixed and made into a fruitcake that was saved until the following year. At that time, previous year’s fruitcakes were consumed in the hope that its symbolism would bring the blessing of another successful harvest

In the early 18th century, fruitcake (called plum cakes) was outlawed entirely throughout Continental Europe. These cakes were considered as “sinfully rich.” By the end of the 18th century there were laws restricting the use of plum cake. Between 1837 and 1901, fruitcake was extremely popular.  A Victorian “Tea” would not have been complete without the addition of the fruitcake to the sweet and savory spread.  Queen Victoria is said to have waited a year to eat a fruitcake she received for her birthday because she felt it showed restraint, moderation and good taste. 

It was the custom in England for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of the cake, traditionally a dark fruitcake, under their pillow at night so they will dream of the person they will marry. Fruitcake’s durability – the butt of most of the jokes about the holiday treat – is actually the reason the baked good was invented in the first place.

Roman soldiers carried fruitcake with them during their long treks. Crusaders also brought the hearty treat along on their search for the Holy Grail. Egyptians packed the fruit-and-nut bread in the coffins of friends and relatives. They apparently felt it was the only food that could survive the journey into the afterlife.

Fruitcake was also tied to the abundance of ingredients in the Middle East region during ancient times. Fruits and nuts were plentiful in the Holy Land, so mixing together a fruitcake wasn’t difficult. It also provided a special treat for people in northern Europe, where those items weren’t as readily available. In addition, fruit was a luxury in winter months, so a fruitcake made in summer or fall would still be edible during December and January.

the Romans mixed raisins, pine nuts and pomegranate seeds with barley mash to make their sturdy, compact cake. During the Middle Ages, Dorfman says, preserved fruits, honey and spices were added. These days, candied fruit, fruit rind, citron peel and some sort of liquor are also part of the ingredients. Dorfman says the ratio of fruit and nuts to batter is high, which gives fruitcake it’s dense, heavy make-up.

Light and dark fruitcake

There are two basic types of fruitcake. The lighter version uses lighter ingredients such as granulated sugar, almonds, golden raisins, pineapple and apricots. The darker version uses darker ingredients such as molasses, brown sugar, raisins, prunes, dates, cherries, pecans and walnuts.

The jokes about fruitcake’s staying power are true. Peggy Trowbridge Filippone on the website about.com says fruitcakes can easily last three years if stored and cared for properly. They need to be tightly wrapped and you need to pour a small quantity of liquor over them every few months.

Fruitcake is still popular

Despite the jokes, fruitcake does retain some popularity. The Collin Street Bakery in Texas sells 1.6 million fruitcakes every year. They go to all 50 states and 200 countries.

The 14 monks at the Assumption Abbey in Missouri make 23,000 fruitcakes every holiday season. It costs $28 for a 2-pound cake. And their website says they’re sold out for Christmas 2007. If you want one of their fruitcakes, you have to wait until Feb. 1.


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