Consider this a truth: Anyone who goes to the trouble of making you a fruitcake from scratch loves you.
Making a fruitcake is a hassle. It is an aggravation. Just gathering the ingredients for the thing (at least in Charleston, West Virginia) is a frustrating, time-consuming odyssey and that’s before you get around to mixing up this concoction, shoving it in the oven or dousing it with booze.
On some level, I think I knew this. While I consider myself a fair (though, by no means overly talented) baker, I’ve never tackled a full-on holiday fruitcake.
Instead, I’ve settled for a very nice apple-walnut cake. People like them and I’ve given dozens of apple-walnut cakes to friends and family. For a special occasion, I might even throw on the somewhat tricky caramel icing, which turns into a bulletproof shell if you wait just a hair too long to get it off the stove.
I’ve never made fruitcake because most of my experiences with Christmas fruitcakes come from those weird, red-wrapped bricks that get sold every December at your local grocery store.
I hate them. The candied fruit is gummy and the nuts are chewy. The whole package smells like old polyester and the cake tastes like socks and underwear for Christmas.
My memories of fruitcake are bitter, too.
When I was a teenager, I took a brief interest in fruitcakes because I’d heard they were soaked in brandy or rum. Then I learned that the grocery store varieties contained no alcohol, just the bitter tears of 15-year-old reprobates like me.
I gave them up for years.
As I got older, I couldn’t even see the point of bothering. It was easier to just eat a donut and make a pina colada. That covered several of the ingredients in a fruitcake and took far less time and energy. Other things needed to be done.
During our COVID-themed Christmas, with not much going on, I had more time than I liked to dither and bother.
I didn’t really know where to start, what recipe was best, but friends told me that Alton Brown’s fruitcake was amazing. I looked it up and found Brown’s “Free Range Fruitcake” on the Food Network’s website.
The recipe seemed to contain just about everything but the kitchen sink.
I shrugged. All of that was going on an expense report, but what really impressed me about the cake recipe was that the Food Network had designated it as “easy.”
Easy was well within my ability.
I made a shopping list, which contained a lot of dried fruit, including cranberries, blueberries, currants, cherries and apricots, and then set out on a Sunday morning.
A local Kroger store had the cranberries and apricots, but there were no dried blueberries. There were no dried cherries. Kroger’s had fresh blueberries, but there were no cherries except the candied variety which I didn’t like.
The hope was to make a cake that I’d also like. Substituting in the beginning seemed like giving up before I’d even really started.
Just the same, I took the blueberries and then asked a clerk about the currants. I was sure I’d seen them before, next to the raisins.
The clerk looked at me, puzzled, like I’d asked her if she wanted to compare tattoos (I do not have any tattoos), and said, “What are those?”
“They look kind of like raisins, but smaller.” I explained, “I’m making a fruitcake.”
She blinked, considered, and then said, “Couldn’t you just use raisins?”
“There are raisins in the cake,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said. “Couldn’t you just use more?”
At Healthy Life Market, the clerk told me they didn’t carry currants anymore because nobody bought them. She pointed me in the direction of the Spice of Life store down the road.
“They have lots of dried fruits,” she told me.
They did, but not currants, cherries or blueberries. The lady at the register checked the computer.
I finally found currants at The Purple Onion at the Capitol Market. It was on the bottom shelf of a rack of dried fruit, nuts and assorted candies. It was on the very bottom of the shelf, underneath two plastic containers of raisins.
The best I could do with the cherries was a bottle of red cherries in water from Smith’s Food Fair.
I love the people who work at Smith’s. They’re super sweet and have held on to my wallet and/or debit card half a dozen times after I’ve wandered out of the store, perhaps a little too excited about my newly purchased half-gallon of ice cream.
Smith’s will also occasionally, seemingly inexplicably, have random items on shelves that seem out of place in a small, rural grocery store, like gourmet veggie bouillon cubes or limited-edition craft beer.
These will be marked down, too, because I’m apparently the only living person within a 10-mile radius who will buy either.
I figured I could just dehydrate the berries and cherries at the house. Alton’s recipe called for “sun dried” berries and cherries, but it had been overcast for days and I hadn’t used my food dehydrator in ages.
I dried my ingredients overnight and then dug into the recipe.
In hindsight, I should have looked at more than the ingredients before I started. The first step involved chopping up and then soaking all the dried fruit overnight in rum.
I could have done that while the berries and cherries were drying, but I didn’t and I didn’t have another night to wait.
Alton offered a hack. If I didn’t want to wait around, I could put all the dried stuff in a bowl with the booze and microwave it for five minutes. That seemed workable. Also, it seemed wise to periodically stir the mixture to make sure every piece got a little of the alcohol.
Here’s a safety tip not on the Food Network’s website: Don’t inhale the fumes coming up out of the bottom of the bowl. It will clear out your sinuses and may cause hallucinations.
Also, I wouldn’t smoke around it.
After the formerly dried fruit mix was rehydrated, I heated it on the stove with juice, sugar, butter and spices. I was instructed to let it boil, simmer and then cool.
What I got was a dark, slimy mix to be added to some dry ingredients and a couple of eggs to make the cake batter.
The batter was baked, spritzed with brandy and then allowed to cool. To get the full effect, I was supposed to pour brandy on the cake a couple of times over the next week or so to let the cake age.
It seemed like an awful lot of work, but I was ready to be amazed in five to ten days.
Meanwhile, I boiled a traditional Christmas pudding on my stove, based on suggestions from Chris Higgins at Valley Gardens, but further explained by the internet.
He sent ingredients, (which also included more currants) but not a full explanation on what to do with them, which could have ended badly if I just tossed them in a pot and hoped for the best, but I looked it up.
You combined, mixed and boiled the contents of the pudding in a covered container, sort of steaming it.
I’d thought the British use of the word pudding was the same as sausage, but this was more like a cake, contained no weird animal parts and was delightful. It tasted like something between a spiced cake and a carrot cake.
It was a keeper.