Here’s a case where fruitcake is not the butt of a joke. The much-maligned sweet bread figures prominently in A Christmas Memory, a heartwarming holiday book by Truman Capote that always moves me. It’s hard to believe that the same author who penned the chilling In Cold Blood wrote this loving ode.
Capote’s 1956 tale—it’s really more like a short story—is said to be an autobiographical telling of a time during his childhood in Alabama when he lived with his much older cousin Sook Faulk. In the book, the boy is seven; the woman is 60-something. On a certain day each year, the "woman with shorn white hair" wakes up and exclaims, "Oh, my, it’s fruitcake weather." It’s definitely a period piece, though timeless and poignant.
I’ve made traditional fruitcake a few times. The booze-soaked cheesecloth was the key ingredient. I finally gave up when I admitted to myself that I really don’t like the cloying candied fruit, no much how much liquor is in the cake. And then I found a recipe in the cookbook American Favorites by Betty Rosbottom—one of the coolest cooking instructors in the country—that doesn’t call for the awful red and green cherries and citron. This is a cake that people actually request! Try it. It may end the doorstop jokes once and for all.
Fruitcake Hater’s Fruitcake
For the cake
3 large navel oranges
1 cup dried cranberries
¾ cup golden raisins
½ cup dried currants
½ cup chopped dried apricots
2 cups sugar
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup chopped walnuts
For the icing
8 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, softened
6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Optional: dried fruit (cranberries, apricots, golden raisins, and currants) for topping
Arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 325 degrees. To prepare the cake: Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan. Grate zest from oranges to make 3 tablespoons for cake and 2 teaspoons for icing; set aside. Squeeze oranges to yield 2/3 cup juice for cake and ¼ cup for icing; set aside.
In a medium nonreactive (stainless-steel) saucepan, combine dried cranberries, raisins, currants, apricots, and 2/3 orange juice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes, or until fruit is plumped. Drain well and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add 3 tablespoons orange zest and vanilla extract; beat well.
In another large bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Alternately, add flour mixture and buttermilk to egg mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in walnuts and fruit. Pour into prepared pan.
Bake until golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely, about 1 hour.
To prepare icing: Beat together cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar until smooth. Add reserved ¼ cup orange juice and reserved 2 teaspoons orange zest; beat well. Spread on top of cake. Top with dried fruit, if desired.
(Cake can be made 5 days ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before serving.)
—From American Favorites by Betty Rosbottom