At its best, it is rich, moist, filled with the intense flavours of candied fruits, raisins and nuts and often soaked with brandy, rum or a liqueur. But late-night comedians make jokes about it and a Colorado town holds a Great Fruitcake Toss every January to help people get rid of unwanted fruitcake.
"It's ridiculous," says cookbook author and food writer Elizabeth Baird of Toronto. "There are a lot of poor imitations out there, but I don't think any of these people ... really know what a good Christmas cake is like."
Dana Speers, executive chef for the President's Choice test kitchen, believes traditional Christmas desserts — fruitcake, mince tarts and Christmas pudding — are enjoying a resurgence.
"I think they're coming back because anything nostalgic is coming back. It's a huge trend in restaurants right now. You'll see fruitcakes and things like that, macerated fruit, trifle, old-fashioned British sort of desserts, that I thought were passe in the '90s, and 2010 even."
She says some people may have been turned off because of food colouring in the fruit.
"These days a lot of people are making fruitcake ... with dried fruit, not using that fake stuff, and it's really good, so using dried blueberries and raisins, dried cranberries and not using that fluorescent stuff. If you use dried fruit and nuts, it's actually kind of a healthy dessert."
For Baird, nostalgia plays a big role in her love of fruitcake.
"My mother loved baking and every Christmas she would make a light, medium and dark Christmas cake."
There were special trips to get the candied fruit — lemons and oranges — in whole pieces if possible, to the liquor store and to look for flat, seeded Muscat raisins. They are hard to find now, but Lexia raisins also come from Muscatel grapes.
"They have the lovely winey flavour that really gives great depth to something like a Christmas cake," Baird says.
The cakes were made several weeks in advance of the holidays, wrapped in liquor-soaked cheesecloth and stored in tins in a cool place to allow them to mature and absorb the liquor. On holiday occasions, slices of the cakes would be arranged on a platter with a variety of Christmas cookies.
"I was always impressed with the pride with which these things were offered," Baird says.
The recipes were often handed down and exchanged. She has a recipe book compiled by her husband's grandmother with only two types of recipes in it — pickles and Christmas cakes. But there have been a few developments in Christmas cake recipes.
"A few years ago some very interesting chocolate Christmas cakes came out," Baird says. "It's very easy to turn a regular Christmas cake into a chocolate Christmas cake by either grating chocolate into the batter or by melting chocolate and stirring into the batter. And it's actually a really, really nice combination."
Lighter Christmas cakes are popular now, she says, using more tropical fruit such as apricots and pineapple with Cointreau or Grand Marnier (orange-flavoured liqueurs) sprinkled over them. There are also recipes for gluten-free Christmas cake.
Baird uses a 33-by-23-cm (13-by-9-inch) pan lined with parchment paper for her cake. It's easier to tell when it's baked than with the large nesting pans her mother used and is the perfect depth for slicing.
For the icing, her mother made an almond paste and covered that with butter icing. Baird varies that by brushing the cake or slices with corn syrup or honey and then covers it with a thin layer of marzipan.
Although the cakes don't have to be stored in the refrigerator, she says refrigerating them before serving makes them much easier to slice.
Christmas pudding and mincemeat pies or tarts were also a holiday tradition in Baird's family. Her mother made plum pudding and her aunt made carrot pudding, topped for serving with a brown sugar and butter sauce. They would make them in coffee cans saved up over the year.
Baird says her biggest exposure to mincemeat, originally a savoury dish made with ground beef or venison, came when she lived in England, where the mixture of chopped dried fruit, spirits, spices and beef suet or lard were almost always made in the form of tarts, with a round of pastry in the centre of each tart top.
The Christmas cake tradition in Baird's family was dropped for a time, but last year she made one again and it was such a hit that this year she and her sister are getting together at the end of November to make their cakes together.
"It does require some time, but it's worth it. And it's not cheap. But then it goes a long way and if you have visitors at Christmastime, it seems to all disappear.
"All of those three things — the pudding, the cakes and the mincemeat — share those rich flavours of raisins and oranges and lemons and nutmeg. For me, they're the fragrances, the aromas of Christmas."
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.
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