Though we live a few hundred miles apart, both my mom and I kept busy in the kitchen this holiday season. Some of the treats we whipped up for us, some for others, and all were hard to resist. Baklava, Mexican Wedding Cookies, Viennese Honey Cake, Hungarian Walnut Sweet Bread, Sri Lankan Fruitcake…
“Fruitcake?!” You may be thinking, “Who even likes fruitcake?” You will, once you try this grandma’s recipe. But first, let’s talk about fruitcake and perhaps by the end of this article you’ll agree with me that this holiday staple isn’t deserving of it’s bad rap.
The first mention of fruitcake dates back to the Egyptians, who considered fruitcake essential foodstuffs for the afterlife and buried a loaf alongside their dead. However, the cake as we know it today comes from the early Romans. Their version consisted of mashed up pomegranate, raisins and pine nuts folded into barley and baked. Soldiers, hunters and later crusaders were often sent packing with fruitcake as a food staple because it was sturdy, lightweight and had a long shelf life -the perfect combat ration.
Through time, fruit cake evolved from its simple beginnings into a recipe that increased in complexity as each successive historical era added its own distinct touch. As preserved fruit, honey and spices made their way west into Europe from the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages, these new ingredients were folded into the mix in an iteration closer to today’s. In the 1600s, cheap sugar from the colonies prompted Europeans to add cups of sugar to increase density, enhance flavor and prolong shelf-life in a way that allowed fruit to be eaten out of season. During the early 18th century, nuts from the harvest were added. At this point, this fruitcake (or, “plum cake”) was considered such a “sinfully rich” decadence that it was actually outlawed in most of Continental Europe, and its consumption was restricted to very special occasions- funerals, weddings and Christmas. And finally to add the finishing touch, a hundred years later, the Victorians added alcohol. All of this sounds pretty good to me.
So what makes a fruitcake a good fruitcake? First, the fruit-to-cake ratio is key. If there is less than 50% fruit, it’s not a true fruitcake. Second, fruitcake aficionados agree that dried fruit is the way to go, and if you do use the multi-colored candied fruit found on grocery store shelves, first soak it in boiling water to remove some of the sugar and preservatives. Third, fruitcake should be made at least one month in advance of its eating to allow the tannins in the fruit to release and deepen the cake’s flavors. Finally, a good fruitcake is “fed” over time by pouring whiskey, brandy or rum over the loaf. This process, too, adds to the weight of a fruitcake and no doubt its decadence.
But why is fruitcake considered to be such a holiday faux pas? The popularity of fruitcake in the United States took a significant hit when Johnny Carson joked that there really was only one fruitcake in the world, passed from family to family. I wager that Mr. Carson just never had the right one. This one, handed to me from Auntie Jeymalar Ariarajah’s Sri Lankan kitchen, meets all the criteria outlined above and has since become a staple at my family’s Christmas feast.
According my coworker Manny, this cake is rarely found outside Sri Lanka except in the Sri Lanka diaspora scattered throughout the world. Today, Manny’s family serves this cake during the Christmas season at their home, not only to provide something to nibble on here and there, but it also serves also as a passageway his wife’s homeland which she left as a six year old due to ethnic strife her family faced at that time. So in a way, this preserves the family’s heritage or tie to the country of Sri Lanka. The tweak that makes Auntie Jeymalar’s rich cake so special is the addition the jam which adds a little more depth to the cake than using just fruit alone.
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup sultanas
- ¼ cup cherries
- ¼ cup crystallized ginger
- ½ cup candied peel
- ¼ cup pumpkin preserves
- ½ cup pineapple jam
- ¼ cup apricot jam
- ½ cup strawberry jam
- 2 TB rose water
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp powdered cloves
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cardamom
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- 1 TB honey
- ¼ cup brandy or spiced rum
- 1 cup semolina flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 cup chopped, toasted cashew nuts
- 1 cup butter
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 9 eggs, separated
- Powdered sugar, to garnish
For the caramel
- ¾ cup sugar
- ¾ cup water
Mince all the fruit into small bits. Mix all the cut fruits, candied peels, jam, and add spices together with the brandy, honey, vanilla and the rose water. Add the caramel to this mixture. Mix well, put it into an airtight bottle and keep aside for a week.
Make the caramel by dissolving the sugar in half the amount of water in a thick saucepan over a medium heat and bring to boil without stirring till it turns pale brown. Remove from the heat, add the rest of the water and allow it to cool.
Toast the semolina lightly in a dry skillet and allow it to cool.
When you’re ready to bake the cake, preheat the oven to 300F and grease and sugar either a 9 x 13 rectangle or a 12" springform pan. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Set aside.
In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar, add the yolks one at a time and beat well between each addition. Add the semolina and the baking powder and mix lightly. Add the prepared fruits and nuts and mix well.
Gently fold in the beaten egg whites and mix to combine. Do not overmix. Pour into prepared pan of choice.
Once you put the cake in, reduce heat to 250 F and bake for about 3 ½ hours until top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.
Optionally, sprinkle with powdered sugar to serve.
Chew on this:
Most commonly served at Christmas, this cake is also served during weddings and often taken home by guests as a favor. According to an old wive’s tale, single women who place the cake received from a wedding under their pillows will dream of their future husbands. An ornate multi-tiered fruit cake was served at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding, suggestive of it’s crowning popularity outside of the U.S.
Do you have a favorite from grandma? We’d love to see it! Send them to Chrissy@chicagofoodseum.com
Chrissy Barua lives in Lincoln Park and successfully lawyers by day despite an addiction to bad movies, cookies, and travel. She'll be bringing you monthly doses of delicious as she tries to track down the best grandma recipes she can find. (Follow her on her other cooking adventures at The Hungary Buddha Eats the World.)