Fruitcake is probably one of the most harshly judged foods in the world. It is the butt of jokes and the object of tosses, the mother-in-law of baked goods. But with ingredients like common fruits, nuts and spirits as the powerful flavors what’s not to like? And others must agree because despite all the hate, the fruitcake industry is thriving, with millions of pounds being sold commercially around the world each year.
Our own state is the home of the fruitcake capital of the world, Claxton. In 1910, the Claxton Bakery was founded by Savino Tos, an Italian pastry maker. The bakery was a success and during the holiday season, he sold a fruitcake filled with the finest fruits and nuts. In 1927, an 11-year-old Albert Parker asked for a job. Eighteen years later Albert would own the business.
In the 1940’s, he noticed that the need for bakeries was changing. Grocery stores were carrying many of the items found in his store. He made a bold decision to specialize in one item, fruitcakes. He worked diligently to develop sales and his big break came in the 1950’s when the Tampa Civitan Club chose the Claxton Fruitcake as their fundraising item.
Still a family owned business, they claim their cake is calorie free… as in they don’t charge extra for the calories. In reality it is loaded with candied fruits, raisins and Georgia grown pecans. With 95% of their sales happening in the holiday season, they begin busy operation the day after Labor day each year. During this time they produce 86,000 pounds of cake a day using a full train car of raisins every 2 days.
Whether you love it or hate it, fruitcake has a place in Christmas traditions, but how did it become associated with Christmas and the holidays?
History says that before there was refrigeration, fruits and nuts were preserved by baking them into a cake that was then stored in the cellar. During the winter when there were very few sweets left, the dense preserved fruitcake was taken from the cellar and enjoyed during the holidays. During the Victorian Era when decorated Christmas trees, wrapped gifts and Christmas cards became in vogue, the humble fruitcake gained popularity as an elaborate treat.
For my family the tradition began in the 1950’s with Mrs. Cantey’s fruitcake. Fresh out of Columbia Seminary, my father took his first pastorate at the Havana, Florida, Presbyterian Church. The ladies of the church were all about cooking and many of our family recipes came from the kitchens of that community. Like any good southern town, one of these recipes included fruitcake. Not just any fruitcake, but Mrs. Cantey’s delicious fruitcake, a gift she gave every Christmas.
Four years later, when my family was moving, mom asked Ms. Cantey for the recipe. She was happy to share but when she gave ther recipe to mom she said in a whisper, “Don’t leave out the wine, it’s what makes it good.”
Tips for Making A Good Fruitcake:
- Citron is the most controversial of all the candied fruits. If the recipe calls for citron and you don’t care for citron, substitute another candied or dried fruit.
- Dredge fruit and nuts with some flour so they won’t sink in batter. Shake off excess flour and use in the recipe.
- Adding spirits to the cake neutralizes the sweetness.
- Use parchment or brown paper to line your pan. The paper prevents the sugary fruit from burning against the side of the pan.
- Always cool fruitcakes completely in pan and remove when cold.
- Fruitcakes get better over time.This is called “ripening.” Like aged wine and cheese, flavors develop and mellow over time.
Mrs Cantey’s Fruit Cake
This recipe is over 100 years old!
In large bowl, mix chopped:
- 1 Cup raisins
- 1 cup figs or dates
- 3 cups nuts
- 1 1/2 cups candied cherries
- 1 cup citron
- 1 cup red and green pineapple
- 1 cup mixed candied fruit and peel
Sift one cup flour and pour over fruit and mix.
- 4 egg yolks
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
Beat vigorously for 2 minutes.
- 2 cups flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 2 tsp allspice
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp cloves
- Add alternately with 1/2 cup orange juice and 1/2 cup wine to the first mixture.
- Then add fruit and nuts.
- Add 1 cup melted butter and mix all well.
- Then beat 4 egg whites stiff and fold into cake batter.
- Put in paper lined tube pan.
- Bake at 250 about 4 hours.
- Place a pan of water on the lower shelf of oven while baking.