With Christmas right around the corner, many people are turning their attention to the making of fruit cakes-that much maligned and often scorned delicacy that is associated with holidays and weddings. Fruit cake has been made for thousands of years, but it's only in the last 80 years or so that it's becoming a running Christmas joke; This is because the fruit cake that is mass produced and sold in stores is dry, hard and tasteless.
Fruit cake has been made since the days of ancient Rome in one form or another. It was not called "fruit cake" until the Middle Ages when people began to put preserved fruit, spices and honey for sweetness in the cakes. When the American colonies became a source of cheap and abundant sugar in the 16th century, people in the colonies and Europe discovered that fruit would keep for a long time when preserved with a large concentration of sugar in sugar-water syrup. An excess of preserved fruit was created which, in turn, made the preserved fruit cheaper and made the baking of fruit cakes more popular. Nuts were not used much in fruit cakes until the 18th century when Europeans started putting nuts in the cakes at harvest to ensure good luck and a good harvest the next year.
There are so many different kinds of fruit cakes and ways to make them; the recipes for them would quickly fill a very thick book! Recipes for fruit cakes vary broadly depending on the country they come from and the fruit that's available in that country. There are countless fruit cake recipes from the United States, because we grow so many different kinds of fruits and nuts. The most popular recipes here are light fruit cake and dark fruit cake; so named because of the color of the fruits and nuts used in them. There are also fruit cake recipes that have been handed down from mother to daughter over the generations and are an honored part of the Christmas traditions for their families.
A fruit cake that's made with care by hand and allowed to age tastes and looks splendid and is a testament to the baking skills of the person that made it.
Fruit cakes are at their best when they're well made in advance of the holidays. They need a period of time, usually a few weeks to a few months, to age properly. When a fruit cake is stored it picks up the flavor of the liquor or juice it's soaked in; this also makes the fruit cake much moister and helps to reserve it. And, as the flavors of the different fruits and nuts in the cake intermingle it contributes to the delicious signature taste fruit cake has.
So, try your hand at baking a fruit cake this holiday season. You'll be making a little bit of history!