I received the text from my friend Janine on a Saturday before Thanksgiving: “I’m with my ma this afternoon. Fruitcake!” Noting the lack of a comma, I realized she wasn’t referring to me (this time), but rather the annual family holiday tradition.
Behind every tradition is a starting point, the bold ancestor who declared, “This was a great idea, I think we’ll do this every year.” Whether it’s yule logs, goose, stollen, or KFC (seriously, Japan?). My family often went through the trouble of making pierogi.
But what to do when no tradition has been handed down to you? Make one.
So was the story for my neighbor, Madame LeCoeur, Janine’s septuagenarian mother. Born in France but brought by her mother to the United States when she was still a child, LeCoeur became caught between two cultures. Oysters, a Christmas favorite in France, aren’t nearly as abundant in the Midwest, for some reason. (Do not suggest Rocky Mountain oysters here, thank you.)
So when she raised her kids, she settled on … fruitcake? Considering the abundant abuse it suffers, the traditional Christmas loaf, reviled, re-gifted, or repurposed as a doorstop, may seem an odd choice. But there was a method to the madness.
The Making of a Tradition
Years ago (do not ask how many), Madame LeCoeur was a single mother raising two small children and venturing back to university at the same time, and she needed an idea for Christmas gifts.
“I didn’t have much money but had access to government-supplied food surpluses,” she said. This meant—similar to such programs during wartime and the Great Depression—a reliable source of flour, sugar, butter, powdered milk, eggs, oil, and molasses. She went to the classic Betty Crocker cookbook, found a fruitcake recipe, and got the stereotypical result—making her hesitate about giving them as gifts.
“I had to think seriously whether I would really want to eat them myself. But, in the back of my mind, through some readings of some sort, was the idea that these really were truly edible.” She remembered something about soaking them in alcohol. “A light went on,” she said.
LeCoeur splurged on a bottle of rum—these were special gifts, after all—and made rum-soaked fruitcakes that first year. Her daughter Janine, eager as many of us are in celebrating a sense of family, insisted on making this an annual tradition.
Labor of Love
Now, every year, just before Thanksgiving, Madame LeCoeur and Janine get together for the daylong process of creating the cakes. The tradition extends to using particular mixing bowls as well, including one made by one of LeCoeur’s old college friends.
The two batches each take 2 to 3 hours to bake, plus time for prepping the ingredients, and result in 10 little loaves to be distributed around Christmas time to a select list of people.
I had been on the waiting list for a couple of years. Or perhaps I was the entire list. No matter—this year I’ll be receiving a loaf, and on baking day, I stopped in briefly to bear witness and have a sampling of another tradition: the “Golden Loaf.”
LeCoeur saves one of the loaves for the next year to be consumed during the creation of the next generation of loaves. For the loaf to last that long requires more applications of rum and re-wrapping the loaf every six to eight weeks to make sure it doesn’t dry out. The fruitcake turns a dark golden color, but the candied fruits and the rum sell it. It’s the moistest fruitcake you’ve never had.
RECIPE: Rum Fruitcake
Fruitcake recipes, like fruitcakes themselves, come in all varieties. While LeCoeur started with a standard recipe, she’s put her mark on it over the years.
“I added more varied dried fruit, chopped up crystallized ginger, and used a variety of spices,” she said. They also use the fruit pieces to make decorative patterns on the loaves. But the most important ingredient may be the last: “Without all the rum,” said Janine, “it’s just regular fruitcake—all dried out and icky.”
This recipe makes two full-sized loaves, but you can also divide it into 10 mini-loaf pans.
Consider this a starting point. Madame LeCoeur isn’t giving up all her secrets.
Makes two 9- x 5-inch loaves
- 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1 cup oil
- 4 eggs
- 1/4 cup dark molasses
- 2 cups golden raisins
- 1 1/2 cups chopped dates (pitted)
- 1 cup candied cherries (red and green)
- 1 cup candied pineapple
- 1 2/3 cups pecans
- 1 bottle of dark rum or brandy
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Line two 9- x 5-inch loaf pans with brown paper—not brown parchment paper, which I’m told dries the loaf out faster, but actual brown packing paper—and grease the interior with butter or oil.
Mix together all ingredients other than the fruits and nuts in a large bowl, then beat the mixture on high speed for 2 more minutes. Stir in the fruits and nuts and pour into the pans. Don’t be afraid to play around with alternative dried/candied fruits and nuts, or even other spices.
Bake in the oven at 275 degrees F for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Stick a toothpick in the center, and if it comes out clean, it’s finished.
Let the loaves cool, then wrap them in cheesecloth soaked with rum, and wrap the whole thing again in wax paper and then aluminum wrap, and leave them to “cure” for a month. Check after a couple weeks to make sure the loaf is not drying out. If it is, add another rum-soaked wrapping.
You may only end up using 2 to 3 cups of rum, so you may have to find a use for the extra. Cheers to that!
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey,” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com