Here’s the deal: the old rule for fruitcake used to be that (a.) you used only confectionery-grade nuts, candied fruit, candied citrus peel, etc.; (b.) you cut the candied fruit and candied peel into thin julienne strips; and (c.) you aged the fruitcake some weeks or months, wrapped in cheesecloth in a tightly lidded container, and periodically doused it with the hootch of your choice.
This produced a moist, mellow fruitcake with well-integrated flavors. The interlocking julienne strips held it togther, so it could be cut into proper thin slices. The julienne strips also meant that a mouthful of cake wouldn’t turn out to consist of a single horrible wodge of denatured maraschino cherry. Finally, the use of confectionery-quality ingredients meant it tasted good.
How you can screw up with fruitcake: 1. Start too late in the year, so that your fruitcake doesn’t mellow properly, and instead turns out nasty, crumbly, and dry. 2. Cheap out on the ingredients, using semi-rancid nuts, the wrong sort of raisins, and wholly denatured “candied fruit chunks”. 3. Use a recipe that calls for the substitution of gum drops. This is an abomination. Also, the melting gumdrops weld the cake into the pan.
My theory about the decline of the fruitcake: When you buy baked goods for your own consumption, you’ll notice adulteration; but you won’t notice it in baked goods you buy to give as presents, and the recipients will be too polite to mention it. Fruitcakes are the definition of baked goods people buy to give away. Adulteration happened. By the time everyone got around to comparing notes on how nasty most commercial fruitcake had become, we’d raised a generation of kids who wouldn’t eat fruitcake on a bet.
I love good fruitcake, myself.
If you’re starting now, or if you like a light fruitcake, or if you just plain don’t like candied fruit and citrus peel, you can do worse than Jo Walton’s Cousin Beryl’s Fruitcake Recipe. It’s great stuff, and it doesn’t require aging. A large wedge of it was our salvation when our train was delayed coming home from Montreal.