My Life in Fruitcake
Enlarge Image Credit: Helen RosnerThe much maligned yet omnipresent fruitcake was a scarce creature at my family home in Queens, New York in the 1970's. In fact, it didn't make its first (and nearly only) appearance in our three-family condo until one was given to us by our upstairs tenants, Carole and Alex Stuart.
Of the many tenants we had in and out over the years (including a French woman with a penchant for gossip, and a Greek couple with a penchant for traveling), Carole and Alex stood out. And not just because it was a tad uncommon at the time for a young, attractive, All-American couple to move into a predominantly Italian part of Queens (this was before Brooklyn was cool and Queens was an acceptable borough for those fleeing Manhattan). They stood out also because they took a real affinity to my mom and her baking. They indulged her coffee talk and coffee cake (my mother's percolator still runs from morning till night) and a six-year-old me.
It was Christmastime, 1981, and as usual, I sat in Alex and Carole's living room, massive headphones on, listening to what I'm sure was Linda Rondstat's "Blue Bayou" on repeat on their record player. Carole tapped me on the shoulder and presented me with a gift, a wrapped object that had the shape and density of a brick. Delighted, I pulled off the headphones and she said "A little holiday dessert for your family! Enjoy it—it's an old family recipe!"
That night after dinner, my mom presented this gift after our typical rich Italian meal. My usually boisterous family fell silent as Mom placed this dark rectangular loaf at the center of our round, Formica kitchen table. We stared at it blankly, as if we were waiting for it to do something.
"What is that?" My dad asked. My know-it-all brother said, "It's fruitcake—you eat it for Christmas. It's like panettone."
This, panettone, we understood. So we sliced up the foreign mass, studded with electric green and red candied cherries, and dug in.
And then we stopped. My sister put down her fork. My father sighed. And I dropped my bite from my mouth as if I had just bitten into poison. How could this dry, horrible thing be compared to the fluffy, sweet, almost angel food-like panettone? Surely, the only thing these two baked goods shared was a season.
We've stumbled upon a recipe that even the most ardent fruitcake hater would have a hard time resisting.As if my introduction to fruitcake wasn't insulting enough, my further run-ins with the word continued to plague me. During my tweenage years, I developed into a rotund, fey little man with no hand-eye coordination and a tragic lack of skill in our public school gym. I was tormented by the more athletic kids every time I dropped a ball or scored a point for the opposing team. In one instance, my ineptitude warranted a "Get with it, fruitcake!" from a fellow student that stung, not because he was implying something that at the time I didn't completely understand, but because he associated me with something as unappetizing as fruitcake.
And from that point forward, I shunned the word. And the food.
But ever so slowly, I am starting to dip my toe back into the fruitcake waters—tasting and testing new recipes with the aid of a great kitchen staff at Baked and a more refined palate. I am happy to report that I think we've stumbled upon a recipe that even the most ardent fruitcake hater would have a hard time resisting. I am a fruitcake, and this is my recipe.
See the recipe for Renato's Orange, Pineapple, and Walnut Fruitcake »
Renato Poliafito is a co-owner, with Matt Lewis, of the Baked bakery in Brooklyn, New York, and is the co-author of the Baked series of cookbooks.