OK. How many cooks does it take to make a fruitcake? Doesn't matter since we still have the one from last year.
Seriously, is there a dish more visually appealing and steeped in tradition than this holiday icon, and yet is so maligned? The original gift for regifting, they often get passed around more than the buck. But for someone like me, the Will Rogers of these traditional treats ("I never met one that I didn't like"), the bad rap for fruitcake seems downright malicious.
If you go to the Internet and punch in "fruitcake" you'll find thousands of sites dedicated to recipes, jokes about, clubs for, alternative uses and the occasional reference to alternative lifestyles.
From a historical standpoint, the first ones seem to have originated with the Egyptians. Not all that surprising when you consider their reputation for making things that last forever. Most European cultures have some version of cake mixed with dried or candied fruit and nuts running the spectrum from dry like Italian panettone and German stolen to the gooey British Christmas cake.
A few years back Hostess, makers of fine pastries like the Twinkie, ventured into the fruitcake market with little, individual bars. My guess is they bombed since you never saw them again after that season, probably causing some executive to spend the rest of his life in corporate Siberia next to the guy that invented clear Pepsi.
I found that it's not just Americans who ridicule these little gems. The other night I was talking to a lady from Germany who said that in her country a popular use for unwanted fruitcake was as a base for dried flower arrangements, like Styrofoam. However, her recipe, which she acquired from her mother-in-law of 30 years, was so good that it could convert doubters to believers.
Funny thing is her husband who was sitting right there declined to comment on his mom's prize recipe. Ardi seemed to think that he didn't understand English. I tend to think that after 30 years of marriage he understood all too well.
As with any food, I think the issue is balance - balance between the cake and the fruit. In an article in the New York Times, the author claimed that the problem lies in the fact that the cake has disappeared entirely leaving only the fruit. Sighting questionable scientific studies that had the atomic weight of fruitcake somewhere around that of uranium, he theorized that rather than being held together by cake the fruit was bound together through intense hydraulic pressure, much like the process of crushing scrap metal. Maybe.
Our recipe for today has a couple of things going for it over the conventional brick. First, there's actually cake in this fruitcake. And second, unlike traditional loaves that require weeks or months to mature, these little cupcakes are ready right out of the oven. If you like, they can be stored in an airtight container for up to six weeks.
Speaking of six weeks, that's about how long we will be closed here at Del Rio for our winter break, reopening early February. In the meantime have a Happy Holiday, and remember, it's the season for giving, not re-giving, so eat your fruitcake.
Holiday Fruit Cupcakes
1⁄2 cup mixed candied fruit, minced
2 tablespoon candied citron
1⁄4 cup dried currants
1⁄4 cup pecans, broken into pieces
1⁄2 cup dark rum
1⁄2 cup unsifted cake flour
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
4 ounce unsalted butter, softened
1⁄4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1⁄4 cup molasses
2 tablespoon whole milk
A couple of days before you want to bake, toss the minced fruit, citron currants and pecan pieces with 1⁄4 cup of the rum. Cover tightly and store at room temperature.
In a small bowl combine the flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Whisk to combine.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the softened butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Alternately add the dry ingredients, the molasses and the milk in three increments. Add the soaked fruit and soaking liquid and beat until combined.
Fill eight greased and floured muffin tins about three-fourths full with the batter and bake at 325 for about 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄4 cup of rum, and wait 5 minutes to unmold. Store in an airtight container for up to six weeks. We doubled the recipe for the ones in the photo, and it worked fine.
• Brian Shaw and his wife Ardie own Cafe Del Rio in Virginia City.