From millennia past to modern day, from the Antarctic to the Caribbean, there has always been fruitcake. Far more than a source of holiday ridicule, fruitcake has fueled weddings and war. It’s as storied and complex as humanity with a whisper of the divine. And let us say, hallelujah.
Fruitcake has its origins not in commercial factories but in ancient Rome, appearing in the first–century work De re coquinaria (The Art of Cooking), the world’s oldest-surviving cookbook. The first fruitcake comprised dried fruit and nuts bound with mashed barley, honey, and wine, then formed into cakes and baked. This was born out of necessity — the ingredients were available and nonperishable — but the result proved fruitcake to be greater than the sum of its parts. As I write in my book, Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner, “The sumptuous oils of pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, and pistachios embraced and enhanced the winey sweetness of dates, apricots, plums, and raisins for a rich confection that endured (without preservatives) long after Rome fell.”
At its most primal and delicious, the recipe remains as once it was — mostly dried fruit and nuts, natural, high in energy, and nutrient-dense, a treat you can feel good about (kinda), without any of the strange artificial anythings commercial fruitcakes might contain. Think of fruitcake as the forerunner of power bars and trail mix. That’s why it served as rations for Roman legionnaires and medieval crusaders. It’s an MRE actually worth eating.
If you study the history of fruitcake — and I do — you’ll note early recipes are stingy with the sweet spices we throw about so freely now — cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove. Spices came from the Silk Road — Asia, India, and the Middle East. Getting your hands on them took money, and in the case of nutmeg, bloodshed; it was so prized in the 17th century, the Brits and the Dutch went to war over it. Keep that in mind the next time you shake some into your cappuccino.
A century or so passes, spices become more accessible and affordable, and mankind as a whole grows a smidge more civilized. America declares its independence, and fruitcake becomes part of American history, thanks to our very first first lady, Martha Washington, who made it for friends and family. So did another American icon, Emily Dickinson. The beloved poet made sure to bake fruitcake for everyone on her Christmas list. For a recluse and an introvert, she had a lot of friends. Her recipe for black cake, so called because it is brandy-rich, thick, dense, and dark with raisins, prunes, and dates — serves 60.
Devoted fruitcake makers start the process months before the holidays are upon us, macerating citron, raisins, pineapple, cherries, and dates and figs in bourbon, brandy, or rum.
By the Victorian era, fruitcake becomes a wedding ritual back channel. The Victorian groom needed something more than wedding cake to sustain him through the matrimonial pomp and see him through his wedding night. The answer? A robust, boozy fruitcake. After the ceremony, slices of what was called “groom’s cake” would be given out to everyone in the wedding party to place beneath their pillows that night. This sounds more like a recipe for ruined pillowcases and flattened fruitcake, but I love the idea. Did it inspire sweet dreams? Mad sex? Being Victorian, they did not say.
Groom’s cake and black cake — the darker, richer, alcohol-intense fruitcakes — have their origins in the Caribbean, home of rum and sugar. They’ve never had a white Christmas but love the season anyway. Black cake is a point of pride and a celebration unto itself. Every family in Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, Barbados, and the Bahamas has its own recipe, and everyone swears theirs is the best.
Fruitcake has endured through the ages and throughout the world. Really endured. Over a century after Robert Scott’s ill-fated 1910 expedition to the South Pole, conservationists discovered artifacts at his base camp including a fruitcake. It looks and smells “almost edible,” thanks to the cold, which kept it well-preserved. Alas, the same cannot be said for Scott and his crew, who perished.
Look, no one should die over fruitcake. It is proof of an abundance of spirit — by which I mean soul, not alcohol, although a true fruitcake involves that, too. It also requires generosity, forethought, effort, time, and with all that chopping and stirring, a certain stamina and upper-body strength. It is truly a labor of love.
Devoted fruitcake makers start the process months before the holidays are upon us, macerating citron, raisins, pineapple, cherries, and dates and figs in bourbon, brandy, or rum. One Jamaican friend macerates her fruit in Manischewitz for a fruitcake for all faiths. It will smell high-octane at first. Don’t worry, give it an occasional stir then leave it alone. The alcohol will mellow over time.
Come fall, you whip up a batter resplendent with “ginger and vanilla … and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.” Does that cozy quote sound like Dickens? It’s actually from flamboyant, irascible Truman Capote, who showed his soft spot for fruitcake in A Christmas Memory. Then you bake your cakes, cool them, wrap them, bathe them gently with more alcohol from time to time, and let them ripen for the holiday season, pausing on occasion simply to admire. They’re like pets you don’t have to housetrain.
For all the effort involved, the best fruitcakes are still made lovingly and artisanally in small batches. Some things do not scale well. You can increase fruitcake production, but you risk losing its soul. So if you outsource your cake, do so to people who are in the business of souls. Turn to the church. Really.
The finest fruitcakes on the market are made by religious orders and have been for at least 1,500 years. Monks produce and sell fine foods as a way to sustain the order — it’s a win-win. You can be sure the recipe has already achieved perfection, each cake mellowed with age (and alcohol), and blessed. You don’t have to be of the faith. Just believe in fruitcake.
Brandy-soaked, loaded with goodness
Monastery Greetings’ website serves as an online clearing house of religious orders and their fruitcakes and other wares. New Camaldoli Hermitage in majestic Big Sur is the first and only fruitcake-baking Camaldolese Benedictine order, and the monks take it seriously. I first had to prove I was legit and sincere in my inquiry and not, in their words, a “fruitcake terrorist” — such are the dark days we live in.
The original fruitcake recipe comes courtesy of Brother Joseph. A chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy prior to joining the order, Brother Joseph crafted the fruitcake recipe, along with New Camaldoli’s other big seller, date-nut cake, as a monastery money-maker. It worked. They’ve been making it for almost half a century, and according to the order’s Father Zacchaeus, they produce 2,000 fruitcakes a year.
Theirs is brandy-soaked, dense, and moist but not goopy, with a nice balance of dates and raisins, walnuts (my favorite), and pecans (everyone else’s favorite). As with most fruit-cakes, it’s best enjoyed sliced thin and served with something bracing — strong coffee, black tea, or a tot of brandy or port. A 1-pound fruitcake costs $20.98 — such a deal! Larger fruitcakes are available, as well as New Camaldoli’s date-nut cakes and Holy Granola.
For the ultimate New Camaldoli experience, the monks welcome visitors who request a retreat at the hermitage. The fruitcake baking is left to the experts, but guests are encouraged to join in prayer or silent contemplation and to enjoy the area’s wild beauty. We could all use more contemplation and beauty in our lives. More fruitcake, too. Amen.