One of the best things about the holiday season Is the great food. So many treats. Christmas Cookies, homemade fudge, candy canes, Chocolate Santas, gingerbread figures, popcorn balls, eggnog, fruit cake...
Wait a minute. Fruitcake? Perhaps the least respected dessert ever, fruit cake is a holiday tradition which has been the butt of more jokes than street corner Santa Clauses. Of course, it was not always this way.
The earliest forms of fruitcake are some of the most ancient baked treats. Sweet fruits in fresh and dried forms would have been stirred into a batter and baked to create a special treat for various seasonal celebrations. The traditional American fruit cake is a descendant of English Holiday Puddings. Puddings were often boiled rather than baked since a pot for boiling was a more common technology than an oven for baking.
The English added copious amounts of distilled spirits to the mix, in part for flavor, but also for the preservative qualities of the alcohol. The booze in the batter and fruit would boil away in the cooking process, but the finished cake was often wrapped in a brandy or rum soaked cloth, and so could last for months before spoiling.
The American tradition of mail-order fruit cakes began in 1913 when some bakeries in the Southern States began offering fruitcakes in decorative tins in catalogs. This location allowed bakers to take advantage of inexpensive nuts, which became a significant ingredient in the cakes. American mass produced fruit cakes did not contain any alcohol, so between the indignities of a somewhat slow postal system and inexpensive nuts going bad. Fruit cake began to lose its hallowed reputation.
The abundance of cheap nuts in fruit cakes also gave rise to a popular expression, “nuttier than a fruitcake.” Nutty is just what Richard Diamond finds in his contributions to the Fruit Cake Collection. In “Jerome J. Jerome”, Diamond's office and then his whole life is taken over by an obvious kook. Of course, the kook is not all he appears to be, and neither is the corpse he leads Diamond to. In “Leland Leeds and the King Tut Idol”, Diamond seems to have found another kook, but this time it is an heir whose inheritance is more than it seems.
With nuts, fruits, special batter, booze and generations of tradition, making a fruit cake is not the easiest thing in the world. After hearing how Fibber McGee does with his great aunt's fruit cake recipe, it is a sure bet that Molly will be a fan of mail order cakes. Of course, fruit cake does not have to be difficult, especially if we follow the instructions given by Mary Lee Taylor in her PET Milk sponsored program. In fact, her Quick Fruit Cake is so simple we can almost have it ready to serve by the end of her story about the newlyweds from Midvale in bustling Capital City.
In the end, the cake itself is what is important, not the fancy tin it comes in. The cake, and the thought behind it. That seems to be the lesson Henry Aldrich learns when mother sends him to deliver a fruit cake on the first day of skating. Let's hope that he can find a dry pair of trousers in time to deliver the cake. More important, let's hope he can think of a way to get the cake off the bottom of the lake!