Heart and Soul: The quintessential Christmas cake

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My family adopted Christmas, so our concept of it is untraditional.

Growing up, my memories of it were mostly like a clash of cultures – with curries, roast, rice dishes, and desserts for a suitably sweet finale to the calendar year.

Having a celebratory gathering was not just about the tree and sparkling decorations. Mostly, it was about good food and wine, close family, friends and cherished memories.

Receiving a delicious, classic fruitcake loaf as a festive gift was, and is still, the most exciting gesture of giving, to me.

However, many people dread receiving fruitcake. This Christmas staple has been the butt of many jokes for years, so much so that the reason for its existence has been forgotten. Some people think it is just a cake with fruit, but fruitcake is different and has been synonymous with the yearend holidays.

As domestic goddess Martha Stewart explained on her website, it is a sinfully rich dessert filled with dried fruits and nuts.

Fruitcakes are typically dense cakes. With all that fruit and sugar, you would think a fruitcake would spoil quickly. But it does not, because most recipes call for alcohol to be included in the cake, which kills bacteria and prevents spoilage. Some families keep uneaten fruitcake as heirlooms for special anniversaries.

An enticing fruitcake made by the writer. Nothing says Christmas quite like a fruitcake. Photo: Sheela KanagasabaiAn enticing fruitcake made by the writer. Nothing says Christmas quite like a fruitcake. Photo: Sheela Kanagasabai

As late as 1950, the fruitcake was an esteemed part of the American holiday tradition. In 1958, it was proclaimed, “What could be a better gift than fruitcake!” for National Fruitcake Day (which falls on Dec 27) in the United States.

While the American version of the fruitcake is derived from the English, the popular cake actually dates back to Roman times.

As a Roman delicacy called satura, the fruitcake contained pine nuts, barley mash, pomegranate seeds, raisins and honeyed wine.

Around the Middle Ages, people started putting fruit inside bread, possibly as a preservation technique.

Two of the most common styles of fruitcake in Europe are the stollen and panettone which were considered medieval fruit bread.

Fruitcake also became popular with British royalty. Queen Victoria was said to have received a fruitcake for her birthday but waited a year before eating it, to showcase restraint.

Both Princess Diana and Kate Middleton served fruitcakes at their weddings, making this cake a favourite with the British monarchy.

The fruitcake’s status as a delicacy for special occasions has endured.Recipes for it have improved over the years, giving it a long shelf life and dense texture.

Fruitcake is one of my all-time favourites to bake. It is beautifully moist, has the perfect amount of spice (from cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg), and makes my home smell festive.

I started baking after retiring from the corporate world. Baking was my therapy and creative outlet when I took on the role of caregiver. Everything changed once I got past the initial excitement of starting my own home business. However, I persevered because sometimes you need to say yes to an opportunity.

I decided to specialise in seasonal fruitcakes which are suitable for every occasion. Every bite should be perfect, full of flavour, and extra festive because it contains fruits and roasted nuts.

Getting hold of old recipes that featured different techniques and expert tips on fruitcake variations from around the world, I came to understand why the best fruitcakes are matured for months before they are cut.

A month before Christmas 2019, I baked fruitcakes for a church gathering. Since then, the news spread through word of mouth, and taking orders for fruitcakes has become a Yuletide “tradition” for me.

There’s a saying by US author A. Lee Martinez that goes: “Reality is like a fruitcake – pretty enough to look at but with all sorts of nasty things lurking just beneath the surface.”

I believe that my biggest growth driver, as an independent baker, has been the lesson taken from the misunderstood fruitcake. Love it or hate it, fruitcake is sure to be around, whether or not it is Christmastime.

And with everything that has happened this year, taking a bite out of a fruitcake is the least of your worries.

Nothing says Christmas quite like a fruitcake as it certainly has earned its reputation for longevity.

Christmas is a celebration of the richness of life, and a fruitcake certainly has that.

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