Ralph Gardner JR: Fruitcake
I’ve got a confession to make. I like fruitcake.
I don’t understand why fruitcake is a punch line. You know, like the joke that there’s only one fruitcake in the world and it’s constantly being regifted.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not my favorite baked good. It doesn’t fill me with the thrill come autumn of a golden yellow box of Mallomars.
Or an excellent croissant. A bakery recently opened a few miles from me in Columbia County that makes a Parisian quality croissant. The owner told me the process of creating it takes three days. That doesn’t surprise me. A perfectly crafted croissant – the outside crisp and flaky, the inside fluffy as a cloud -- is a work of art.
This croissant, in the middle of upstate New York, has undoubtedly added to my quality of life. Here’s how good it is: I’m keeping the name and location of the bakery a secret. There’s already enough competition for their pastry, especially on weekends. I’m always concerned they may run out by the time I get there. So lately, I’ve been calling and reserving a few of them.
Come to think of it, I should be doing that right now.
I’ve never met the fruitcake, on the other hand, that I can say has improved my quality of life. But recently I did encounter one that provides an excellent accompaniment, come holiday season and for several weeks, even months, subsequently, to a cup of tea on a dreary winter day.
Because the shelf life of this fruitcake, like any self-respecting fruitcake, is unknown and probably unknowable. It could be millennia. As far as I can tell, fruitcake has no expiration date. Robin McKay, the chef who, each December, makes and sells several hundred of the fruitcakes I’ve come to admire in her kitchen in Ghent, New York – you can find her at Robinskitchenview.com -- told me she recently tossed out a few leftovers from 2015. She probably didn’t need to. They probably tasted almost as good as when they were baked twelve months ago.
I visited Robin one afternoon last week when she had four fruitcakes in the oven and another one on her kitchen table. She was basting it with brandy for Ruth Reichl, the bestselling author, and the former editor of Gourmet magazine and New York Times restaurant critic. Robin works as a recipe tester for Ruth.
Robin told me she’d never had a fruitcake before she started making her own a few years ago. She did it for her British boyfriend and his friends.
“When Christmas came around they were all begging for Christmas cake,” Robin said. Apparently, they call fruitcake Christmas cake in the U.K.
So Robin did some research.
“There’s Jamaican fruitcake soaked in black rum,” she told me. “In Ireland there’s a fruitcake with actual tea.”
Her premise is that wherever the British went, they left behind a fruitcake. She makes hers with currants, raisins, figs, dates, apricots, lemon peel, almonds, hazelnuts and fresh ginger. There’s no preservatives. Nonetheless, Robin understood the risks of manufacturing a fruitcake, no matter how organic, small batch, and tasty. I mean the risk of becoming an object of humor and derision. For example, when she visited Michael Albin, the owner of Hudson Wine Merchants on Warren Street in Hudson, New York.
“He’s like, ‘I hate fruitcake,’” Robin recalled. “Everybody says that until they try it.”
Ruth Reichl dropped by to pick up her fruitcake while I was there consuming the free samples. Ruth used to be among the haters. Her previous experience with fruitcake was similar to many of us: Over a cup of tea, Ruth said the fruitcakes she received as gifts would sit there and sit there until she eventually aroused the initiative to throw them out months later. Robin’s fruitcake was different. Ruth described it as grown-up fruitcake. I’d have to agree. It tastes refined. By which I mean, sophisticated.
I have only one complaint. Robin’s fruitcake, while festively wrapped, is basic brown. There’s none of that candied fruit that glows in the dark. You know: the bright red cherries. The even brighter green cherries.I swear I’ve seen green cherries in fruitcake. And you’d have to agree. There’s nothing that says the holidays like green cherries.
Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com.
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