Bringing fruitcake back from butt of jokes

At McMillan's, Kristine Emmons says bakers soak the fruit in Grand Marnier. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
At McMillan's, Kristine Emmons says bakers soak the fruit in Grand Marnier. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: December 20, 2012

I HAVE A GUILTY pleasure to admit: I actually like fruitcake. Not the cheap doorstop lead-weights that brood ominously on drugstore shelves - those aren't for me. I love dense fruit-studded cake soaked with plenty of booze. I love a torte loaded with nuts and cherries and pineapple and plump raisins. And I know I'm not alone in being nuttier than a you-know-what about this much-maligned treat.

At McMillan's Bakery in Haddon Township, N.J., a fourth-generation family-owned bake shop since 1939, Kristine Emmons and her mom, Arline McMillan Biemiller, oversee the production of more than 700 pounds of fruitcake between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. And while the bakery is known for its 40 kinds of cookies and gingerbread houses, its holiday fruitcake is downright legendary.

The secret is the Grand Marnier. "We soak all our fruit for a week," said Emmons. "It gets turned every day so that the flavor really gets into the fruit."

As with all flavors that are wonderful, using only the best ingredients - whole pecans, never pieces, high-quality fruit and real Grand Marnier - is what makes this cake such a winner.

All that goodness doesn't come cheap. McMillan's charges $40 and $60 for medium and large tins, or $22.50 a pound for cake by the slice. That hasn't diminished enthusiasm for the product.

"We ship it all over the U.S.," said Emmons, who along with assistant Brittany Davis decorates the top of each cake with more nuts and fruit. She expects to make one more batch this week. When that's gone, fruitcake season will be over until next year.

Still, most folks prefer to cut up than cut into fruitcake. It's the dessert equivalent of cranberry sauce - you either love it on your holiday table, or you loathe it. But it wasn't always so.

Walter Staib, chef/proprietor of City Tavern and host of the award-winning PBS show "A Taste of History," explained that fruitcake was the sweet of choice in colonial times.

"There is a tradition of using dried fruits, first soaked in brandy, Madeira or wine, and then added to cakes," Staib said. "Fruits were very expensive in the 18th century, so this cake was a showpiece on the table. There was no leavening in this era of confections, so cooks had to rely on whipping eggs to make a cake rise."

Staib offered a recipe based on the notes of first lady Martha Washington, who taught her granddaughter, Nelly Custis, to make it as a holiday tradition. Washington served it on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, which was also the wedding anniversary of the Washingtons, and when friends and family would celebrate.

"This cake is out of this world," said Staib.

So if fruitcake is so delicious, why the bad rap?

"It's not because people don't like it, it's just so expensive to make," said the German chef, who always makes stollen, a German version of fruitcake, for the holiday season. "I come from the Black Forest, and it isn't Christmas without stollen. But all of the ingredients are pretty pricey."

And there's another reason that this treat is so maligned. Cheap versions really do taste like hockey pucks.

"Because of the price, companies started cutting corners and making them cheap," said Staib. Stale nuts, oversweetened fruit and other substandard ingredients helped fruitcake become the butt of holiday jokes.

In the blog Two Nerdy History Girls, Susan Holloway Scott explains that fruitcakes were the star of every fancy colonial sweet table, but not for their looks. "Celebratory cakes of the past were not the frothy, towering constructions of piped and colored icing that they are now," she said. "What made them festive was the lavishness of their ingredients, not their outer display.

"These cakes would be rich with eggs and butter and sugar, candied fruit and costly imported spices, brandy and sherry. With eggs as the only leavening, the texture would be dense to modern tastes, more of a cross between our pound cake and a fruitcake. But because the ingredients were fresh [or freshly ground], there'd be none of the chemical-preservative flavor that makes many 21st-century fruitcakes such bad jokes."

If you're thinking of giving fruitcakes another try this holiday season, head over to McMillan's while supplies last. There's a tasty one at Whole Foods, too. Or order from gethsemanifarms.org, a Kentucky-based community of Trappist monks who consistently earn praise for their bourbon-laced fruitcake, picked as "best overall" by the Wall Street Journal.

Better yet, try making your own at home, following one of the recipes here. But remember: Fruitcake quality is all about good ingredients. Two great sources for those are the Head Nut in Havertown (theheadnut.com) or the Spice Corner (thespicecorner.com) in the Italian Market.

You and your holiday guests will be surprised at how delicious these cakes are - and that's no joke.


Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.

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