Ah, fruitcake. Not only is it the red-headed stepchild of the Christmas table, it is also its Cher, seemingly impervious to time and a model of eerie self-preservation. The two specimens pictured above were purchased last week and sliced into last night, which in fruitcake years is about 0.4 seconds. The damn things just won’t go away, even if there’s an annual event dedicated solely to their destruction.
Several years ago, Our Man Sietsema provided a fascinating if disturbing history of the most reviled member of the dessert family, whose existence, he wrote, can more or less be blamed on “some goon” in the 16th century who “discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in successively greater concentrations of sugar, intensifying color and flavor.” Since then, fruitcake has migrated across the globe, but, regardless of where it has put down roots, it tends to surface predominately during the Christmas season, often at the behest of the nostalgic or merely sadistic.
Being new to the fruitcake demimonde, we were both curious and slightly fearful, and decided to compare the virtues of two specimens we picked up at Myers of Keswick and Dean & DeLuca. Since the former is a beloved British foods store, it traffics in fruitcake riddled mercilessly with sultanas, shellacked with a thick layer of marzipan, and festooned with a cheerfully garish greeting. Since the latter is Dean & DeLuca, it sells a tastefully packaged variety plugged with all sorts of meticulously sourced citrus and decorated with a price tag that would inspire riots, if only enough people actually cared about fruitcake.
First up was the Myers of Keswick cake (above), made by Bryson’s of Keswick, a 60-year-old family bakery in England’s Lake District. Billed as a “Luxury Handmade Christmas Cake,” it cost $35.95 and came with its sides encased in satiny maroon ribbon. Although only about six inches across, it was impressively heavy, and led us to think that instead of being ritually destroyed, fruitcakes would be better employed in plugging future oil spills or being shot into space to knock asteroids off their collision courses with Planet Earth.
As far as this fruitcake was concerned, we felt a weird affection for its homespun message — after all, it was wishing us a “Happy Christmas” — until we bit into the frosting, which tasted like sugar and utter despair. Undeterred, we dug deeper, and were rewarded by the marzipan, which we could have happily eaten on its own.
Beneath the marzipan sat the actual cake, whose ingredients included cherries, sultanas, currants, sugar, and sugar glucose. Its flavor was somewhere between toasty and burnt, but strangely enjoyable, provided one likes dried fruit, which we do. The cherries were intermittent but welcome, owing mainly to their eerie chemical glow, but what we mostly (literally) took away were gobs of sultanas, trapped like insects in amber in the cake’s ruthlessly dense crumb. After a couple of bites, our stomach began sending distress signals to our mouth and we envisioned bonemeal being forced through a drinking straw, so we stopped.
Next was the Dean & DeLuca cake, which is made by Robert Lambert, a California chef who bills his company as “your best source for unique artisan condiments.” Dean & DeLuca seems to agree, as it sells Lambert’s 16-ounce cake for $48. To put that in perspective, for $48 you can also buy a pound of Russ & Daughters’ loin-cut smoked salmon or 20 ounces of foie gras mousse from Hudson Valley Duck Farm. Or, for just a dollar more, a pound of wagyu rib-eye from Japan Premium Beef.
Meaning that for $48, we wanted the best freaking fruit cake the civilized world had ever known, one that would make us see both the Ghost of Christmas Past and Baby Jesus himself. Instead, we saw an unassuming loaf tastefully adorned with a bay leaf and a candied white grapefruit peel star.
But if its appearance was all very Martha, its taste was pure Sandra, meaning Sandra Lee, possible future first lady of New York and the Food Network’s pre-eminent tippler. Lurking in the cake was a holy trinity of port wine, brandy, and Jack Daniels; biting into the thick, swarthy, slightly dry crumb was like falling into a liquor cabinet. While the cake, true to form, also contained plenty of fruit (glacéed cherries, raisins, currents, dates, prunes, figs, bergamot and blood oranges, Texas lemon peels, citron), as well as hazelnuts, pecans, orange juice, coconut, and candied ginger, the booze beat all of the other ingredients into woozy submission. The cake, in other words, could function as the world’s brawniest Jell-O shot, provided one didn’t mind disabling their intestines in pursuit of inebriation.
For all of the fancy fruit and nuts and spices that went into the Lambert cake, the alcohol remained our first and lasting impression. Which isn’t to say it was bad; it was fine. If you’re a fruitcake fanatic (and really, who isn’t?), then it probably qualifies as the La Frieda Black Label of the fruitcake world. To us, like the Bryson’s of Keswick cake, it was a vaguely enjoyable novelty, though not one we’d pay $48 for.
But if you are inclined to buy a fruitcake this season and want to feel like you’re drinking while you eat it, go for the Lambert cake. If you’re more inclined toward marzipan and endearingly hokey Christmas cheer, go for the Bryson’s. Either way, we’ll still be figuring out what to do with the leftovers sitting on our kitchen counter.
Myers of Keswick
634 Hudson Street
Dean & DeLuca
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 15, 2010