Fruitcake is a funny thing. It has a reputation for the ability to outlast cockroaches in a nuclear holocaust. Legend has it that fruitcakes are passed around families, not just Christmas to Christmas, but generation to generation. People run screaming at the very mention of fruitcake.

And those who like fruitcake are fiercely loyal to it, ask and beg for it for gifts.

Last year, completely baffled on a gift for my father, I discovered that he loves fruitcake. So I started looking for a good fruitcake recipe. I wanted to avoid recipes that use candied fruit because these days the candied fruit you buy is basically fruit cooked in huge quantities of high-fructose corn syrup, and I’ve always hated that kind of fruitcake. It tastes like I’m eating fruit-and-crumb flavored Karo syrup.

Turns out that the candied fruit recipes aren’t necessarily the classic fruitcake. To make candied fruit without corn syrup requires a lot of sugar.

The classic fruitcake is made with dried fruit and nuts, which are already well-preserved and will last a long time all by themselves. Rum or other spirits was used for flavoring (this is pre-vanilla extract!) and soaking the cake in spirits helps preserve it. Basically fruitcake was a way to preserve and serve dried fruit through the winter. The cake is, essentially, a way to bind all the fruit together.

Rum-soaked fruit as it’s added to the batter.

I’ve read of a couple of ways to preserve fruitcake, and I’d bet none of them are approved by the USDA. One is to sprinkle the cake with a couple tablespoons of spirits, wrap it tightly in spirit-soaked cheesecloth, then in parchment paper, then store in an airtight container. You’ll need to re-sprinkle it every four weeks. The other way is to bury your fruitcake in powdered sugar.

I got lots of advice on fruitcake. My friend Ashbury advised me that the recipe should largely consist of butter; I’ve been told to use bourbon instead of rum; I’ve been told that “dark” fruitcake (made with dark rum, brown sugar, molasses and other things that make the cake dark) is inferior to “light” fruitcake.

Since we don’t really have a fruitcake tradition, I found a basic recipe that involves no corn syrup and went with that. So far I’m following this pretty exactly, except for making one recipe into four mini-loaves.

Basic Fruitcake

1/3 cup chopped dried cherries
2/3 cup dried cranberries
2/3 cup currants
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons light rum
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons butter
¾ cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs 2 tablespoons milk
¼ cup un-sulfured molasses
2/3 cup chocolate chips or chopped pecans

In a plastic container or zip-lock bag, soak the dried fruit in ¼ cup of the rum for at least a day, covered tightly and at room temperature. Then preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter and line a 6-inch round pan or 4 x 8½ inch loaf pan with parchment paper.

Wrapping the fruitcake.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy and add the eggs, one at a time. Add the flour in three batches, alternating with the milk and molasses. Stir in the fruit/rum mixture and chocolate and/or nuts.

Pour into prepared pan and bake for 55 minutes to 1 hour.

Let cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of rum. Place a piece of parchment paper, large enough to wrap entire cake, on a flat surface. Moisten a piece of cheesecloth, large enough to wrap the cake, with 1-tablespoon rum. Place the cheesecloth on top of the parchment paper, and unmold the cake on top of it. Sprinkle the top and sides of the cake with the remaining rum. Wrap the cake, pressing the cheesecloth closely to the surface of the cake. Place the cake in an airtight tin (or plastic container, and let age for at least 4 weeks.

If storing longer, douse with additional rum for every 4 weeks of storage.

Is it traditional? Is it “right”? All I know is Daddy loved it!!

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