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Worldwide Gastronomy Habits & Trends

The origins and variations of fruitcake, a true Mr. Worldwide of Christmas desserts

ByDaria Malinowska

Dec 23, 2022

Christmas desserts. Apart from presents, it is perchance the most awaited part of the whole dinner, especially when it comes to the little ones. And nothing says Christmas quite like fruitcake.

For a confection to be a fruitcake, it has to have dried fruit, nuts, some spices, and often a dash of alcohol on its ingredients list (as a kind of preservative or flavor enhancer). The requirements are not very strict, right? It’s more of a category than an individual item, really. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that many varieties of this confection are present in cuisines all around the globe. If I were to compare it to someone, I would say that it is a Mr. Worldwide of Christmas cakes.

Let’s embark on a journey to get to know more about them! But first, to understand the future, we have to go back in time.

The origins

The earliest fruitcake-like creation supposedly dates back to Ancient Egypt. Back then, people placed it in tombs for the deceased. Fruitcake was also consumed in the ancient Roman empire. Then, it consisted of pine nuts, barley mash, pomegranate seeds, raisins, and honeyed wine. The mixture was shaped into a cake and called satura. Since such a fruitcake had long shelf life as well as could be easily carried around, legionaries took it with them as provisions.  

However, the ingredients of this dessert were not always the same; they changed along with the times. There was even a moment in history when they had meat inside! Fruitcake as we know it today, though, could be traced back to the Middle Ages. It was then that dried fruits and nuts were added to the recipe. However, those goods were largely imported from the Mediterranean region, making the production of the cake very expensive. For this reason, at that time this dessert was considered a luxury fit to be served during a celebration or a special occasion, like Christmas.

Candied fruits were added to the recipe in the 16th century when sugar became cheaper. It was also the time when British colonists brought fruitcakes with them to the Americas.

All of this sugar made the cake so good, that in the 18th century, it was only allowed to be served at special occasions and celebrations, just to become banned in all of Europe for being sinfully rich. Fortunately, before long it went back to being very popular.

Variations

No matter whether served up daily or for special occasions, Christmas being one of them, fruitcake type of baked goods has a special place in the cuisines and cultures of almost every continent. What is interesting, however, it seems to be more of a Western world thing that has been popularized in other parts of the world due to its influences in the past.

United Kingdom

Fruitcakes are intrinsic to British culture. Their slices are served both as everyday tea cakes and wedding cakes, even in the royal family! Speaking of weddings, it used to be customary for unmarried wedding guests to put a slice of dark fruitcake under their pillows to dream of their future spouse.

Up until the 1700s, the Brits referred to fruitcakes as plum cakes. In the UK, you can find a wide array of fruitcake versions: from light and crumbly to rich, dense, and moist.

The traditional Christmas version is round and covered first with marzipan, and then in white royal icing or fondant. On the top, they are usually adorned with snowy scenery, holly leaves, berries, or even snowmen. Many British fruitcakes also contain currents and candied cherries. The exception could be the Dundee Cake from Scotland, which is decorated with almonds and has no cherries inside. Curiously, in Yorkshire fruitcake is served alongside cheese.

USA

Since the late 1800s, serving fruitcake has been a holiday tradition in the US. In 1913, it became even possible to order such a cake by mail!

Typical American fruitcake is not only rich in fruit and nuts but also far flashier in appearance than the European versions. It’s oftentimes decorated with colorful candied cherries, pineapples, and different kinds of nuts. Moreover, it comes in festive tins!

Europe

Perhaps the most famous in continental Europe is the Italian Panforte (strong bread, a disc-like Tuscan kind), or Panettone (cylindrical Milanese kind). While the former is chewy, dense, and heavily spiced with pepper, the latter is sweet and more fluffy and bready in texture. The fruits and nuts in Panforte include hazelnuts, almonds, and/or walnuts, dried plums or figs, raisins, candied citrus peel, or candied lemon. Similarly, Panettone may contain candied orange, lemon, and lemon zest, dry raisins, and optionally chocolate.

Continuing north on our sweet journey, we arrive in Germany, where Stollen is consumed during Christmas time. Nuts and candied fruits are here mixed into a bread-like dough made of flour water and yeast. What makes it even more special is the fact that after it is taken out from the oven, it is doused with melted butter and coated with a thick layer of icing sugar.

Both in Poland and Bulgaria, fruitcake is known as Keks. Although the name is the same, the ingredients and the shapes of both versions differ quite a bit. The Bulgarian kind contains flour, fats (butter and/or cooking oil), quite a bit of dairy (milk, yogurt), yeast, eggs, cocoa, walnuts, and raisins, and is usually baked in Bundt pans. The Polish one, on the other hand, is a sponge cake shaped like a loaf with quite a lot of nuts, raisins, figs, and candied fruits inside.

Sometimes, some (in)edible objects are added to the fruitcake. For instance, the Irish throw into the batter of their Barmbrack a coin or a ring. Each of those objects signifies a different fortune for the person who finds it in their slice. In contrast, the Portuguese hide a fava bean inside their fruitcake. If you happen to find it, you have to buy the cake next year.

The Americas

In Canada, fruitcakes (or Christmas Cakes) are more similar to the UK version. Nevertheless, icing is usually omitted – they are more often covered with marzipan. The cakes look like small loaves of dark and moist bread. There’s little to no alcohol in it. They are a must during Christmas dinner. Some even gift it to their work colleagues, close friends, and family members.

Fruitcake may be found in Jamaica under the name Black Cake. The name was inspired by the large quantities of rum or wine added to the batter. The cake itself is more similar to the English Christmas pudding than the American version.

If you are looking for a more boozy version of fruitcake, then you should go to the Bahamas. There, the cake is doused in rum before and after baking. What is more, all of the ingredients are also soaked in the darkest variation of rum for 2 or 3 months before they land in the batter! No wonder then that it is consumed all year round.

The Chilean Pan de Pascua is a combination of the German Stollen and the Italian Panettone. After all, it is said to have been introduced there by some German immigrants. The cake is sweet, spongy, and flavored with ginger and honey. The batter usually contains candied fruits, raisins, walnuts, and almonds.

Asia

In India, fruitcakes are eaten all year long, but their popularity surges during the Christmas season.

In some parts of Asia, for instance, China, the Philipines, or Japan, apart from the European-style cake, the name fruitcake can also refer to a multi-layered sponge cake with whipped cream frosting and fresh fruits on top.

Australia and New Zealand

Australians consume fruitcake throughout the whole year, but still most typically at Christmas. Curiously, there’s no icing. Instead, butter, margarine, or custard coat the slices of fruitcake.

When it comes to New Zealand, just like in many other cases, fruitcake was introduced here by the British settlers. In this country, the cakes are decorated with icing. The cake can be square or round in shape, dark, rich, and full of different kinds of dried fruits. At times, the batter includes some brandy or sherry to enhance the flavor. Apart from Christmas, New Zealanders also commonly prepare fruitcakes for weddings.