For most of us, this time of year is all about autumn and the beauty of the harvest season. There are overly ambitious Halloween costumes to be dreamed up and then abandoned, apple picking to be done for whatever reason, orange and yellow leaves to be peeped. But for the rare few, this time of year means Christmas, because it marks the beginning of the long, dedicated, two-month process that goes into making a holiday-appropriate, dried-fruit-studded fruitcake.
A traditional fruitcake, the kind that you find wrapped in plastic in boxes in American and (more often) British grocery stores around the holidays, is typically made months in advance. That boozy flavor and frequently claggy texture that is synonymous with fruitcake? Fruitcake gets that way because it has been quite literally preserved: for two months (or more!) leading up to Christmas, fruitcakes are “fed” alcohol once a week (or more!), which gives them their rich, alcoholic flavor. As Claire Saffitz reminds you in her Dessert Person recipe, making a fruitcake is not a process that you decide to take on in the middle of December — it’s a process that you start right about now. And even if you think you don’t like fruitcake, which many people think they don’t, you should make one anyway.
Fruitcake is one of very few desserts that inspires a near universal derision. Most people will eat pie if they’re not pie people, cake if cake isn’t their favorite, and brownies just because they’re there. But there are whole vendettas against fruitcake. “How Did the Fruitcake Become a National Joke, and Can It Be Redeemed?” Thrillist asked in 2019. “Did We Always Hate Fruitcake?” Chowhound wondered a year later. The New York Times’ Cooking’s recipe for fruitcake is called “Good Fruitcake,” which one could only take to mean that most fruitcakes are bad. If you make your own fruitcake at home, though, you quickly — well, actually, slowly — learn that it doesn’t have to be this way. (And for the record: even though the American media likes to insist otherwise, there are plenty of people who love fruitcake.)
Many fussy, drawn-out baking projects require at least an intermediate level of skill and knowledge, and if you don’t have either, the croissants you spent two full days obsessing over will be disappointing and sad. A long baking project with a mediocre result can deflate even the most thick-skinned of bakers.
But fruitcake isn’t that. The process of making the actual cake part of fruitcake is fairly novice-level baking — macerate some dried fruit and nuts in alcohol, fold them together with flour, sugar, and eggs, pack the batter into a tin, and bake. The main thing that requires some intuition is the length of the bake: Because the batter is extremely dense and heavy, you have to bake the cake low and slow to make sure it’s fully cooked in the center. The real fun begins, though, once the cake has cooled. After poking holes in the surface, you drizzle booze all over it, wrap it in plastic wrap, then tin foil, then store it in a dark, cool place. Every week until Christmas, you repeat this process until just a whiff of the drunken cake could knock you over. The whole operation is exciting and fun and weird, and not unlike having a low-stakes pet.
Last year, I stored my tightly wrapped fruitcakes in my basement, tucked inside a securely sealed plastic storage container that I had used for moving. Once a week, I would trudge down the basement steps, take the lid off the storage container, carry the cakes upstairs, delicately unwrap them, pour two tablespoons of brandy over the top of each cake, wrap them tightly again, trudge back down the stairs, put them in the container, then start all over again the following week. (When my mom lived in England and made fruitcakes, she kept them under her bed.) A few weeks in, I came to feel a real affection for the boozy boys — I was their sole caretaker and I was responsible for loving them and caring for them. Although I caught myself saying “I hope these actually taste good” out loud more than once, it became less about the final result and more about the investment. When you have a child, you can dedicate all of your energy to raising them well, but at some point you still have to let go. Fruitcake is not dissimilar: at a certain point, you also have to let go.
If that sounds like a lot of work for a kind of cake you aren’t sure you even like, you’re right. But this kind of devotion is paramount to appreciating all that fruitcake can be. It’s not enough to buy it pre-packaged from a store — it’s no wonder people find it gross and disappointing. When you put in the time yourself, feeding it like a heavily boozed-up Tamagochi, you come to appreciate its nuances and layers and flavors.
Last year, at the end of my first fruitcake season (for which I set a calendar reminder, if you can believe it), I removed my cakes from their subterranean den, layered them in jam, marzipan, and royal icing, just as Saffitz’s recipe had directed me to, and stared at them like they were my children, finally all grown up. When I finally ate a slice on Christmas Eve, the flavors were complex, intense, and delicious. I was a fruitcake convert — and all it took to get there were two months and a bottle of brandy.