Why is fruitcake the grownup version of coal in your stocking?
"Most of them are just leaden," says Southern cooking expert Jean Anderson, who wrote the forward to the recently rereleased cookbook Fruitcake: Heirloom Recipes and Memories of Truman Capote and Cousin Sook (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
"My mother made awful ones and she finally just quit, which delighted all of us," Anderson said. "The reason Southern ones are better is because there's huge variety."
It was Marie Rudisill, aunt to the famed Southern author of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood, who originally produced the slim volume Fruitcake in 2000 by culling numerous variations on the theme from a 19th century family journal.
Though the text has been updated, the book remains stuffed with nostalgia. There's dark fruitcake, light fruitcake, fruitcake with coconut, pineapple or currants. Fruitcake stuffed with walnuts, pecans or almonds, fruitcake featuring only golden raisins. Fruitcake soaked in grape juice, sherry, rum or brandy. Rudisill even included a flaming fruitcake.
Regardless of the variety, good fruitcake — and yes, there is such a thing — abides by certain rules.
It should be moist but not wet, Anderson says. It can be hefty but not bricklike. A good fruitcake also is balanced with a pleasing blend of fruit, nuts and anything else you're using, says Berta Lou Scott, co-founder of Southern Supreme Fruitcake Co. in North Carolina.
Want to make a fruitcake that won't be regifted? Rudisill's book and Scott offer these tips:
Keep it moist: During baking, rotate the cake every 15 minutes, Scott says, and don't overcook it. In the book, Rudisill suggests placing a shallow pan of hot water in the oven during baking.
Choose ingredients wisely: Hate citron or candied peels? Leave them out. "If you don't like to eat it, don't put it in there," Scott says. Rudisill suggests using a "light" baking flour, like one made from soft winter wheat. These flours are usually labeled "pastry flour."
Be tasteful: Balance your fruit, nuts and other components. "You can put so much fruit in it that fruit is all you taste," Scott says.
Drink responsibly: Rudisill suggests wrapping the cakes in a brandy-, wine- or juice-soaked cloth and moistening it once or so before Christmas. But Scott warns against a heavy hand with the booze. "If they like their bourbon, I tell them to drink their bourbon with the cake," Scott says.
Chill out: Fruitcakes slice best when refrigerated, Rudisill writes, so make sure the cake is cold when you cut it. Use a straight-edged, thin-bladed knife and dip it into hot water before cutting with a slow sawing motion.