This is a guest post by Anna Rider! Anna is a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of her physicist and taste-testing husband Alex.
One of the strangest things about holiday fruitcakes is how much everybody likes to joke about how terrible they are. Too dry. Too sweet. Too old.
Yet, fruitcakes are everywhere during the holiday season. People gift fruitcakes to each other. We share fruitcake recipes.
Are fruitcakes really that bad? Could it be that store-bought versions are truly terrible but homemade ones are secretly amazing?
We can test this hypothesis with a holiday-themed homemade trial to determine whether homemade fruitcakes can beat the store-bought varieties.
In case you’re new to the homemade trial series, we pick a food and make it from scratch. Then we compare the homemade version to the store-bought ones in the categories of TIME, COST, NUTRITION, and TASTE. Let’s dive in!
We have fruitcake recipes from as far back as ancient Rome. Factoring in all the European variations like German stollen and Italian panettone, there’s an overwhelming number of variations.
Since I’m from New Zealand, I grew up with traditional English fruitcakes. The kind that’s dense, rich, and dark.
Lucky for me, this type of fruitcake is also common in the U.S. So we’re sticking with this denser type of fruitcake for the homemade trial (it makes finding contenders easy).
My fruitcake recipe is inspired by the BBC’s version (going straight to the English source) with adjustments to create a batter that’s closer to a pound cake (adapted from Nicole’s yellow cake recipe at Dougheyed.com).
Note: As you learned in the chocolate cake homemade trial, I live in Colorado, just like Nick. So this fruitcake recipe is tested for high-altitude baking. If you’re at sea level, the recipe should work as written because the cake doesn’t rise much.
Alrighty, let’s do this.
Homemade Holiday Fruitcake
- 1 ⅓ cups seedless raisins
- 1 ½ cups golden seedless raisins
- 1 cup prunes, chopped
- 1 ¼ cups dried cranberries
- 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
- 1 cup dried dates, chopped
- 1 heaping cup pecans, chopped
- zest and juice of 1 orange
- zest and juice of 1 lemon
- ¾ cup brandy, or your favorite liqueur, extra for feeding (optional)
- 1 cup salted butter, about 2 sticks, softened
- ½ cup light brown sugar, packed
- ¼ cup honey
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 5 medium eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup sour cream
- Prepare the ingredients by chopping the dried fruits and nuts. Grate the zest from the lemon and orange. Cut the lemon and orange in half and squeeze out the juice.
- In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the dried fruits, nuts, orange zest and juice, lemon zest and juice, brandy, butter, brown sugar, and honey. When the mixture comes to a boil, turn the heat down to simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes. Then turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 300º F.
- Prepare your baking pans by lining them with parchment paper.
- Sift the dry ingredients (the flour, baking powder, and spices) into a large bowl. Stir the dry ingredients when sifting to ensure they are mixed evenly.
- Crack the eggs into another mixing bowl and discard the shells. Beat the eggs to combine the egg whites and yolks. Add the vanilla extract into the eggs. Stir to combine.
- Check the fruit and nut mixture has sufficiently cooled so that it won’t cook the raw eggs when you add them in. Stir in the sour cream and mix until combined. Stir in the raw eggs with vanilla extract. Mix until combined.
- Pour the fruit mixture into the flour mixture. Fold until fully combined. Dig into the bottom of the bowl when mixing to ensure there are no lingering pockets of flour. The cake batter will be relatively stiff and heavy.
- Divide the batter across the prepared baking pans. Level the top with your spatula to create a smoother surface.
- Bake in the preheated oven. Your baking time will vary depending on the size of your cake pans. Check the cakes after 45 minutes of baking with a cake tester (or toothpick). The tester should come out clean when the cakes are done. My cakes were done after 1 hour and 15 minutes using 7×7-inch cake pans. If you’re using bigger pans, test after 1 hour has passed. Check them every 10 minutes after the first test to prevent overbaking.
- Remove the cakes from the oven when the tester comes out clean.
Did you make this recipe?
Tips for Making Fruitcake
If you’re using unsalted butter, add ½ teaspoon of salt to the wet ingredients.
About the sugar: I hate overly sweet cakes. My recipe calls for ½ cup of brown sugar whereas most fruitcake recipes call for almost 2 cups of sugar. If you like sweeter cakes, you can increase the brown sugar to 1½ cups.
The beauty of this recipe is that you can customize the fruits, nuts, and spices.
For example, if you don’t like dates or prunes, substitute them with dried figs or tart cherries. Love dried pineapple slices, apple rings, and mango? Reduce the quantity of raisins to make room for them.
The key is to maintain a combined weight of 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of dried fruits. I used scales to weigh the fruit (a cup of prunes weighs less than a cup of cranberries).
Use your favorite seeds and nuts. If you don’t love pecans, you could use sunflower seeds, walnuts, slivered almonds, and so on. Add more nuts if you like nutty fruitcakes (some recipes call for 3 cups of nuts). Decorate the cakes by placing a few nuts and a maraschino cherry on top before baking.
Other ideas for special mix-ins include chocolate chips, candied orange peel, candied lemon peel, and candied ginger.
Once the fruitcakes have cooled, store them in an airtight container. They will last for 1 week at room temperature, 4 weeks stored in the fridge, and 3 months in the freezer.
It’s a tradition to feed brandy to your cake every week to keep it moist leading up to Christmas. Some people love aging their fruitcakes. It’s a fun tradition, and some prefer the flavor of an aged fruitcake.
If you’re interested in trying it out, you can poke holes in your fruitcake and drizzle a tablespoon of brandy (or rum, bourbon, whisky or whatever your favorite liqueur is) over the cake. Wrap the cake in cheesecloth soaked in liqueur. Store the cake in a cool, dark place. Repeat once a week. Avoid feeding the cake a week before you plan on serving it to give the cake a chance to dry.
I wanted a grocery-store cake and a mail-order cake. I looked for fruitcakes that contained alcohol for a fair comparison. Unfortunately, this disqualified the Costco fruitcake (which was only $12.99 for a huge cake).
The contenders for this homemade trial are a Holiday Rum Cake from Whole Foods (it was made in France) and an Old Style Monastery Fruitcake from the Trappist Abbey (made in Oregon).
I liked the story of monks and nuns making fruitcakes to fundraise for their monasteries. I picked the Trappist Abbey over other monasteries because they have a strong reputation for making one of the best fruitcakes on the market.
Going to the grocery store to buy a fruitcake took about an hour, including the commute and check-out process (shopping was slower because of physically distanced lines and holiday traffic).
Ordering a fruitcake on Amazon took 5 minutes (it showed up 2 days later on my doorstep).
The homemade fruitcake took more than three hours, including grocery shopping, prep time, and baking time. That’s triple the time compared to the grocery-store cake and 36 times longer than the mail-order cake.
It’s a clear WIN for the MAIL-ORDER cake in the category of TIME.
You pay dearly for the convenience of the mail-order cake. It’s almost four times the cost of homemade fruitcake per serving. And I’m using high-quality ingredients like grass-fed butter in my homemade version.
The grocery-store fruitcake is pricey too. It was more than double the cost of the homemade fruitcake.
Before we call it a slam-dunk for the homemade version in the COST category, consider the mail-order fruitcake included shipping.
It costs almost $14 for a medium priority-mail flat-rate box. After adding shipping, the homemade fruitcake costs almost the same as the grocery-store fruitcake.
This is likely a controversial decision but I’m going to call it a TIE between the HOMEMADE and GROCERY fruitcakes in the COST category.
Just like with the chocolate cake homemade trial, it’s laughable to compare the nutritional value of fruitcakes.
That said, one of the greatest benefits of baking cakes from scratch is that you have control over the ingredients.
This means you can cut the sugar in half. If you want more fiber in the homemade fruitcake, you could add more nuts. This would also boost the protein per serving without adding more sugar.
I’m going to call the NUTRITION category a WIN for the HOMEMADE fruitcake.
I ran a blind taste test with Alex and my neighbors (the same neighbors who were kind enough to help with the pie crust homemade trial).
Alex’s reaction after tasting a bite of every cake was, “They are all so different, it’s nearly impossible to compare.”
My neighbor said the same thing, except she didn’t like the grocery-store fruitcake. She said it tasted gritty.
She said she loved the mail-order cake’s texture because it was packed with fruits and nuts but she preferred the flavor of my homemade fruitcake. Her husband chose the mail-order cake as his favorite because it tasted more traditional. It’s the cake he expected from childhood memories.
To help the undecideds, I asked them to pretend all the cakes were $20. “If I gave you a $20 bill, which cake would you buy?”
Alex picked the homemade fruitcake because it was less sweet. My neighbor picked the homemade fruitcake for the better flavor. My preference was for the homemade cake too.
The HOMEMADE fruitcake triumphed as the WINNER of the TASTE TEST. But for old-school taste buds, the MAIL-ORDER fruitcake could have emerged as the winner.
Here’s the tally (TIME => mail-order cake, COST => tie between grocery store and homemade cake, NUTRITION => homemade, TASTE => homemade).
Here’s my conclusion about this homemade trial. If I’m making a holiday fruitcake for myself or to distribute to family and friends nearby, then the homemade fruitcake is the clear winner.
But if I’m gifting fruitcakes to families who live far away, then I’d buy the mail-order fruitcake without hesitation. It’s faster, less work, it tastes almost as good (some would say better), and it’s likely cheaper once you factor in the shipping costs.
So the homemade fruitcake is the winner, but I could argue for the mail-order fruitcake too. The monks sure know how to make a delicious fruitcake!
Are you surprised the homemade fruitcake won? Are you a die-hard mail-order fruitcake buyer? Share your thoughts in the comments.