28 November 2022
The answer is: Comedians have been telling us so for decades. It is a variation of “my wife is such a bad cook”. In reality there are several reasons why: (1) It is dense and heavy; (2) It is cloyingly sweet; (3) Way too boozy.
Grocery store, mass-produced fruitcake can be very undesirable. Compared to Germanic stollen or Italian panettone, there is little resemblance. A good fruitcake should have a moist bread base, dried (possibly candied) fruit, nuts, spices, and alcohol.
The mystery fruit in many of these desserts are simply not visually appetizing. In addition, they are often candied. Drying fruit will intensify the sweetness and adding a coating will send you into a diabetic coma. Make your choices carefully. If you soak fruit before adding it to the batter, this will help. Berries will absorb a great deal of liquid but dates not so much. If the dried fruit is soaked, it will hydrate the batter as it bakes, keeping the cake from drying out during baking and impart more flavor. Many people will soak the fruit in bourbon or rum but a fruit juice (with no extra sweetening) or even water will work.
Watch your ratio of nuts. Too many and you will end up with more crunch, which can often come off as gritty. Too few nuts and it can be too bready. You should end up with a flavorful combination of crunch, chewiness, and moist bread.
Alcohol is a traditional ingredient to an American fruitcake. There are several ways to accomplish this. As mentioned earlier, you can soak the dried fruit in it. You can add a dollop into the batter. You can poke holes in the cake warm from the oven and then add the booze so it soaks through. The traditional method is to cover the cake with a cloth wrapping of alcohol for at least five weeks. The alcohol is a preservative and helps retain moisture. Obviously the last choice will leave you with the greatest amount of raw alcohol taste.
What kind of alcohol should you use? Rum, brandy, cognac, whiskey (usually bourbon), or amaretto, orange liqueur, and even some wines.
If you are interested in trying to bake one of these desserts on your own, here are some tips. If you soaked the fruit and it is still wet, set it on some paper towels to get rid of the excess moiture. Coat the fruit with a dusting of flour before adding to the mix. This will keep them from sinking to the bottom. Just be sure that they are not overly floured or you will add to the density of the cake. Next, use fresh spices of the best quality you can afford. Spices left in the cabinet too long will lose their impact or turn rancid. If you are substituting the usual fruits with raisins, cranberries, or figs, be sure to make sure the substitutions are of equal weight to the original recipe.
Line your baking dish on the bottom and sides to prevent the outside from overbaking before the center is done. It will also make the cake easier to remove. Fill the pan only to 2/3 of its capacity. Since there is little leavening and few eggs, there is less concern about overflowing, but it is still a good rule of thumb.
Bake low and slow. Keep the the temperature indicated, usually not higher than 325 and frequently as low as 250. This is to keep the baking even. Put a pan of hot water on a lower rack, which will add moisture during baking. Of course, check with a toothpick which should come out moist but not raw or doughy.
As a final touch you can top with buttercream, ganache, or orange marmalade, or a top of royal icing or fondant, but this can add to the sweetness you may be trying to avoid.
As you have probably figured out, this is neither a cheap cake, nor one that is easily thrown together for a quick dessert, but it could be worth the effort if you get all the parts correct.