Fruitcakes are cakes made with candied or dried fruit, nuts, and spices, and optionally soaked in spirits.
They are typically served in celebration of weddings and Christmas.
Given their rich nature, fruitcakes are most often consumed on their own, as opposed to with condiments (such as butter or cream).
Fruitcakes have very long history.
Ancient Egyptians made a type of fruitcake that was left at the graves of loved ones as an offering to provide them with food in the afterlife.
The oldest reference to a fruitcake dates back to Roman times. The recipe included pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins that were mixed into barley mash.
In the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits were added.
Recipes varied greatly in different countries throughout the ages, depending on the available ingredients as well as (in some instances) church regulations forbidding the use of butter, regarding the observance of fast.
Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) finally granted the use of butter, in a written permission known as the ‘Butter Letter’ or Butterbrief in 1490, giving permission to Saxony to use milk and butter in the Stollen fruitcakes.
Starting in the 16th century, sugar from the American Colonies (and the discovery that high concentrations of sugar could preserve fruits) created an excess of candied fruit, thus making
fruitcakes more interesting and popular.
Fruitcake was historically referred to as plum cake in England since around 1700. Since dried fruit is used as a sweetening agent and any dried fruit used to be described as “plums”, many plum cakes and plum puddings do not contain the plum fruit now known by that name.
In the early 18th century, fruitcake were outlawed throughout continental Europe for being “sinfully rich.” It wasn’t until the end of the 18th Century that officials loosened the rules to allow fruitcake to be eaten at weddings and holiday celebrations.
In the Victorian era, between 1837 and 1901, fruitcake was extremely popular. A Victorian tea party would not have been complete without the fruitcake. Queen Victoria is said to have waited a year to eat a fruitcake she received for her birthday because she felt it showed restraint, moderation and good taste.
During colonial times before the American Revolution “Muster” cakes were baked in great number for the men summoned by British troops for military Training. Following the American Revolution women would bake these cakes in vast quantities to motivate the men to attend town meetings and elections. Thus it became known as “election cake”. It was prepared with currants, raisins, molasses and spices, with the addition of brandy in the recipe occurring later. Election cakes were typically leavened with yeast. In New England, large election cakes weighing around 5.5 kg (12 oz) would traditionally be served while people waited for election results. It has been stated that the first published election cake recipe appeared in 1796 in American Cookery.
Typical American fruitcakes are rich in fruit and nuts. Mail-order fruitcakes in America began in 1913.
In France, as in some other non-English speaking countries, the gâteau aux fruits (“fruit-cake”) is often simply called “Cake“.
The fruitcake is commonly eaten during the Christmas season in Canada. Rarely is it seen during other times of the year.
In Germany, baked goods that fit the description of fruitcake are not usually regarded as cake but rather as sweet breads.
Today, fruitcakes come in many varieties, from extremely light to rich and moist.
When a fruitcake contains a good deal of alcohol, it can remain edible for many years.
A 106-year-old fruitcake discovered in 2017 by the Antarctic Heritage Trust was described as in “excellent condition” and “almost” edible.