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Fruitcakes get a bad rap! Many people turn their nose up at them should they receive them for a gift and even the late comedian Johnny Carson quipped about fruitcakes on his late night show. “The worst gift [you can receive at Christmas] is a fruitcake,” he proclaimed. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

Carson’s opinion of fruitcakes is shared by many, yet fruitcakes continue to be one of the best-selling Christmas food gifts each year and there’s even a National Fruitcake Day celebrated each December 27 in the U.S. Indeed, many fruitcake lovers note that it just wouldn’t be Christmas without a fruitcake on hand and, these days, there are many different fruitcake recipes available above and beyond the traditional cake with the red, yellow, and green candies.

What is a Fruitcake?

All the jokes about fruitcake have prevented many individuals from trying them and learning just what it is that goes inside this Christmas creation.

Simply, a fruitcake is a cake that contains chopped, dried candied fruit as well as nuts and spices. Generally, the cake is soaked in liquor, such as rum. It is believed to have its origins in ancient Rome and the first ingredients may have included pine nuts, raisins, and pomegranate seeds, according to food historians. Preserved fruits and spices were probably added during the Middle Ages. The popularity of these cakes spread throughout the European continent and the tradition was brought to America in the 16th century.

During that same era, the discovery that sugar in high concentration could preserve fruit made the cake and its ingredients even more popular.

In the 19th century, fruitcakes were an important component at Victorian teas and became a must-have item for these afternoon affairs. Fruitcake – sometimes called Plum Cake – remains popular in Great Britain. In the UK, these cakes are quite rich and often topped with royal icing and decorated with snow scenes or other winter items.

Varieties of Fruitcake

The American-made fruitcake is the one most familiar to those living in the U.S., of course. And while bakeries and home cooks do make their own, the mail order fruit cake is very popular. Companies like Claxton Bakery in Georgia have been sending fruitcakes through the mail since the first decade of the 20th century. Because of the speed of the mail during those days, the fruit cakes had to be hearty to make it through the mail order process! However, most mail order fruitcakes don’t contain liquor.

A traditional American fruitcake includes raisins and candied fruits like chopped dates, citron (not everyone’s favorite), pineapple, and cherry. Generally, walnuts or pecans are usually part of the mix as well.

However, if you don’t like this American version, other countries offer fruit cakes that contain ingredients you may like better. Recipes for these fruitcakes are easy to find and most ingredients are readily available. International versions of fruitcake include:
o Panettone – This typical Milanese (Italy) fruitcake is made with a sourdough-type base and contains raisins and candied orange, lemon zest, and citron. You may even find some that include chocolate. In Italy, panettone – which is usually cupola-shaped - is traditionally served with sweet wine at the end of the Christmas meal.

o Stollen – A German Christmas favorite, stollen usually includes citrus zest, raisins, and almonds. It’s shaped in a loaf and is generally topped with powdered sugar. Rum is a common ingredient as are cinnamon and cardamom.

o Black Cake – With its origins in the British West Indian island nations of Trinidad and Tobago, black cake is made with plums and raisins soaked in rum as well as brown sugar. It has its origins in British plum pudding.

o Cozonac – This Romanian tradition is used for most holidays in that country. It’s a sweet bread that includes raisins, grated orange and/or lemon, hazelnuts, vanilla flavoring, and rum. It is usually rolled flat and spread with a ground walnut mix then rolled pinwheel-style and baked. Poppy seeds top off this tasty loaf.