When my brother Ray and I were in grade school, our Mama typically bought boxes of chocolate-covered cherries, sleeves of thin mint candies, or packaged fruitcakes to give our teachers for Christmas gifts. I still question her selections. Thin mints were kind of tasty and chocolate-covered cherries were edible – if you only ate the outer layer of chocolate and pitched the sugary, syrup-laden cherries. The dreaded fruitcake was a bit of a quandary. After peeling the red corrugated paper off the bottom of the sticky thing, its only redeeming quality was the 4 or 5 pecans embedded in the dense log of weird colored bitter fruit. I never understood the true delectable pleasures of fruitcake until I baked one of my own.
Several months ago, I was asking my cake-baking friend, Ken Davis what he knew about old-timey fruitcake. My thinking was that it might be a fun, sharable recipe to preserve some of the old holiday traditions of our grandmothers. Ken had treated me to my very first figgy pudding several years ago, so I was sure he would be a fountain of knowledge. He was! Ken shared his fruitcake memories with me. His mom would bake a fruitcake several weeks before Christmas. She’d then wrap it in rum-soaked cheesecloth and store it in a tightly sealed container until the fruitcake was ceremoniously served at Christmastime. The cake had to be checked every few days and the cheesecloth had to be dunked in rum regularly to make sure that the cheesecloth remained damp while it covered the fruitcake.
I, of course, asked if he could get the recipe. Ken had to do some wrangling, but his mother eventually relented, and
he was able to share her favorite fruitcake recipe with me. Being a non-baker, I had lots of questions and needed a bunch of detailed instructions. The cake pan was the first hurdle. I needed an angel food pan, also called a tube pan. It’s a tall, round pan and it has a hollow tube in the center. It comes in two parts and the center of the pan is completely removable. (Note: A Bundt cake pan will not work.) Next question, what in the heck was mincemeat? It turns out that mincemeat is a mixture of chopped and dried apples, raisins, currants, citrus and spices. It’s actually a great timesaver. Who wants to waste time chopping up a bunch of fruit? I even figured out a couple of other things on my own. I didn’t have to sift the flour. I like nuts, so I increased the amount of walnuts from 1 cup to 2 cups. And, I used Baker’s Joy cooking spray instead of buttering, flouring and lining the tube pan with parchment paper.
After several days of texting questions for baking instructions from Ken, I pulled out the proper ingredients and gave Ken’s Mama’s recipe a try. My first fruitcake was gorgeous! The whole house smelled like Christmas. Amazingly enough, what I imagined would turn out to be a stubby, dense cake like the fruitcakes of my youth, rose to be a perfect, golden beauty. I let the cake cool completely for several hours before taking the last step – soaking the fruitcake in rum. This part of the recipe wasn’t written on Ken’s Mama’s recipe card. I had to be walked through it, by Ken, in great detail. What it ultimately entails is, you take a large piece of cheesecloth, soak it in rum and then wrap it around the fruitcake like a mummy. Every few days, I had to make sure that the cheesecloth was staying damp. That meant that every few days, I had to carefully remove the cheesecloth, resoak it in more rum and then rewrap the fruitcake. Evidently, this process can go on for months. Back in the very olden days, when fruitcakes were often served at weddings, the fruitcakes were “cured” for up to six months. Not having that kind of patience, the decision was made to serve my very first fruitcake at my 60th birthday dinner on December 12th. (Ken made a backup birthday cake just in case my creation wasn’t as tasty as it looked.)
Well, Happy Birthday to me! The fruitcake was delicious. It was loaded with fruit, nuts, and warm spices. Dense but
tender, it was nothing like the dreaded fruitcakes of Christmases past. Everyone at the dinner ate the fruitcake. Everyone – even the self-proclaimed fruitcake haters. Thankfully, Ken didn’t have to pull out the emergency birthday cake.
With special permission, I’m sharing Ken’s Mama’s fruitcake recipe this week. It’s still not too late to bake a holiday fruitcake. It’s the perfect cold weather dessert. If you choose to wait until next year, save this recipe and stash it with your Christmas tree ornaments. In 2024, I plan to bake my fruitcake on the day after Thanksgiving, soak it in rum all through the holiday season, and serve it on Christmas Day. Even though I’m just now learning about fruitcake baking at 60 years of age, I believe this is going to be a special, new Christmas tradition. I guess the moral of this story is that you can teach an old girl new tricks. Merry Christmas!
Ken’s Mama’s Fruitcake
Be sure to bake the fruitcake on the middle rack in your oven.
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 (28-ounce) jar mincemeat
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2 cups (1 pound) mixed candied fruit
1 to 2 cups walnuts, chopped
Dark rum, optional
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare a 9-inch tube pan with butter and flour or cooking spray with flour. Sift flour with baking soda in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine eggs with mincemeat, sweetened condensed milk, candied fruit, and walnuts. Fold in dry ingredients. Pour into prepared pan. Bake in a slow (300 degree) oven for 2 hours, or until the center springs back when touched and top is golden. Cool completely. Remove from pan. Soak a large piece of cheesecloth in rum. Wrap damp cheesecloth loosely around cooled cake. Repeat every few days, as needed, to keep cheesecloth damp. Store cake in an air-tight container for 3 to 5 weeks. Serves 12 to 15.
The writer owns Catering by Debbi Covington and is the author of three cookbooks, Celebrate Beaufort, Celebrate Everything! and Dining Under the Carolina Moon. For more great recipes and to view her cooking demonstrations, visit and subscribe to Debbi’s YouTube channel. Debbi’s website address is www.cateringbydebbicovington.com. She may be reached at 843-525-0350 or by email at email@example.com.