Did you hear the joke about fruitcake?
You can pick just about any one, but Johnny Carson is widely credited with administering the comic punt that haunts fruitcakes to this day: His joke was that there was only one fruitcake in the world, and it kept getting passed around as a gift.
The jokes continue: She hated his family so much she gave them: Fruitcake!
What's your new doorstop made of? Fruitcake!
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"I definitely remember the crumble of those cheap cakes in my mouth, which seemed to be much more cake than fruit and always a little bit on the stale side," Betty Givan of Richmond, proprietor of Betty's Kitchen on YouTube, said in an email.
"In the years that have passed since I shared the loathing of the boxed gifted fruitcake, I have learned that when fruitcake is dense with dried fruits that have been soaked in fruit juice or liqueur, and the cake batter is just enough to hold the fruits and nuts together, it is a terrific blend and a beautiful addition to a holiday table.
"Also, when it is homemade, it can be one of the best-tasting desserts ever."
Many of the jokers clearly had never tasted a good fruitcake, or at least not an authentic fruitcake. It's like saying that if you hate coffee after having purchased a cup of scalded brew at a roadside gas station, you'd never like Starbucks.
Jean Givens of Lexington is one of those who still loves fruitcake.
When Givens, 66, was younger, her mother made six types of fruitcake a season, including an uncooked fruitcake.
"It wasn't as good, but it wasn't bad," Givens said of the uncooked variety.
Fruitcake "is such a wonderful warm part of my childhood. It made me sad that over the years that fruitcakes got such a bad reputation," Givens said. "They just don't deserve it."
In the last few decades, fruitcake hate has become so cool it's almost not cool anymore.
Fruitcake comes with some serious history: Preserved fruit was used during times and in areas where fresh fruit was unavailable. In Appalachia in the early 20th century, fresh fruit was often a treat. Oranges were especially prized, and often given in Christmas stockings; preserved fruit was more common, and cooks worked with what they had.
Fruitcake's legendary density hearkens back to English boiled puddings. It also means you can slice the cake thinly — ideal for making a long-lasting dessert economical.
Speaking of which, fruitcake was the wedding cake of choice at Prince William and Kate Middleton's little nuptials party, and English wedding planner Sarah Haywood sniffed at the alleged American distaste for spicy, fruity cake in an interview with People magazine. "Americans do not get fruitcake," she said.
Fruitcake making is a big business in Kentucky. In many places it is carefully concocted, lovingly baked and often soaked with just a little bit of bourbon (substitute rum or brandy if you like).
While the cake part is important, there doesn't have to be a lot of it. The cake carries the flavors of the other elements and keeps the dessert from being super sweet, which is a risk you run if you're using great quantities of dried and candied fruit.
At the Betty's Kitchen channel, Givan only uses about a cup of self-rising flour in her recipe — but she has a pound of pecans, plus 1/4-pound of candied green cherries, 1/4-pound candied red cherries, a pound of dates and 1/2-pound of candied sliced pineapple. Her fruitcake is alcohol-free, although her bourbon pecan cake gets a light cheesecloth soak in bourbon. Givan also offers a recipe for fruitcake cookies.
After deciding whether you want a teetotaler's cake or a cake either lightly touched or genuinely soaked in alcohol — some recipes call for not only a cheesecloth full of rum or brandy tossed over the cake, but a good strong pour down its center — you also have to decide a critical visual question: How about those green cherries?
Some fruitcake consumers find the neon green tint of candied cherries offputting; they are pretty much the opposite of organic. Wendy Wethington, the baker at Critchfield Meats in Lexington, said that her company's recipe no longer includes them after many customers requested a cake without green cherries.
Wethington, who will bake a minimum of 100-150 fruitcakes this year, is something of a born-again fruitcake lover. She tried fruitcake while growing up and didn't especially care for it. Then she tried Critchfield's, which made her a believer.
"I hated it, then I tried ours," she said. "It's got a balance. It's got that sweetness in there, but it's not too sweet. You can taste nutmeg and other spices, a little bit of juice from the fruit."
Brother Gerlac O'Loughlin at Gethsemani Farms in Nelson County said that the fruitcakes there do not use candied fruit at all, but rather fruit saturated and marinated in a Burgundy.
The sweetness of the Gethsemani cakes is subtle, he said.
"I wouldn't even describe it as sweet," he said. "It's not the outstanding characteristic that hits you first."
Betty Seifert of Louisville makes 300-400 fruitcakes a year for distribution through outlets including Paul's Fruit Mart (where she got her start), Garden Gate and A Taste of Kentucky (Atasteofkentucky.com).
Because she is 74 and about to retire from fruitcake-making, Seifert is candid about the mechanics of good fruitcake.
When she started two decades ago, she said, "I'd always wanted to make fruitcakes, but a lot of them were nasty. ... I started to add and subtract. One thing I took out was currants. They're bitter, so I took out currants and put more raisins in. I started adding and subtracting ingredients and flavors until I got a good mix."
She gets her fruit from Plant City, Fla., in 30-pound boxes.
"I have played around with flour, and have discovered that the Kroger flour is just about as good as the Gold Medal," Seifert said.
Seifert is also a fan of Diamond Walnuts and Sun-Maid Raisins, which she buys in bulk at Sam's Club. For bourbon, she uses Kentucky Gentleman, a brand favored by hipsters, who drink it ironically.
Nationally, fruitcake is evolving into different forms — Claxton Fruitcake in Georgia now offers "chocolate-covered fruitcake nuggets," while Harry & David offers a traditional fruitcake and a more nutty, fruity item called a "fruitcake confection."
While fruitcake may be given short shrift between comedians and authors (see the children's book, Junie B. Jones and the Yucky Blucky Fruitcake), the market for fruitcake says that perception is just wrong.
The monks at Gethsemani make so much fruitcake — 70,000 pounds of it annually, along with 57,000 pounds of fudge and 48,000 pounds of cheese — that they pay their expenses with food sales.
But do the residents at Gethsemani eat a lot of fruitcake?
"Not real often," Brother Gerlac responded when asked about fruitcake consumption among the monks. "We'll get a piece for dessert on feast days."
Among rival fruitcakes, Brother Gerlac said that those from the Collin Street Bakery of Corsicana, Texas are tasty
"It's pretty good," he said of the Texas fruitcake. "A few too many nuts for my taste."