three hundred and eighteen

Eat IN BED: A Better Fruitcake, In my Opinion

Words & Images by Sam Hillman

I want to love fruitcake for many reasons. I want to love it because Nigel Slater loves it and because it contains rum. I want to like it because in the right light the glaced cherries look somewhat bejewelled, which feels exceptionally festive and because I live for themes. But like most people who are under the age of 80 and who have taste buds, I don’t enjoy fruitcake so much as I endure it: dutifully, yearly, and at a 1:40 cake to custard ratio. And if you’re reading this, and thinking ‘well I like fruitcake’, I dare you to look me in the eye and say with total honestly, ‘I’m really craving a big piece of fruitcake right now.’ Because you’re not. Nobody is. Fruitcake tastes like spice-cupboard and sadness.

There’s just far too much going on. Apricots, currants, glaced cherries, candied peel (!?), unchaperoned sultanas, miscellaneous nuts; all of them, all at once. It’s time we realized ‘fruit’ is simply too broad a category to be used as a grouping principle. Anyone who has fished a bruised banana or a flaccid bit of filler melon from an otherwise correct and berry-forward fruit salad knows this too. Just because different things are technically fruit doesn’t mean they need to hang out together. A tomato is also fruit, lest we forget.

“But you can make it without fruit!” says various google search results, and maybe you. But that sort of defeats the whole point of fruitcake, doesn’t it? Especially seeing as the cake part of fruitcake is so texturally abysmal. Fruitcake is damp. Not moist - which is a bad word but a good texture - damp. Damp like a sock or an armpit or the underside of a rock. It’s not designed to taste good, it was designed to mimic something that tastes good when sugar was heavily rationed and fresh fruit a luxury item. It was built to last (“to keep”), apparently forever, embalmed in foil or fondant like some sort of sad, fruity brick. As if something terrible might happen - like winter or an air-raid or the Great Depression. Which seems like kinda the opposite vibe you’re going for on Christmas. Because Christmas is exciting! And dessert should be exciting. And fruit pudding is hardly any better; the most exciting thing about it is the possibility of choking on the small coin hidden inside and dying before you have to finish your slice. And speaking of being dead, soon everybody who actually likes fruitcake will be. And once that’s the case, it seems like a shame to keep serving it at Christmas when there are so many better options.

Such as treacle tart. Which is still traditional in the (thrifty-festive-British) way that a fruitcake is, if that’s important to you, still sort of the same colour as fruitcake (minus the fruit), which for some reason feels important to me. Much like fruitcake, you can serve it with custard, cream, or ice-cream, and it can be made ahead of time. And unlike fruitcake, treacle tart is delicious. Sticky(-not-damp!) with golden syrup spiked with lemon zest, which could be a bit of a nod to the fruitcake’s candy peel situation if you wanted it to be. Treacle tart isn’t fancy; it’s a nursery pudding. But all the best desserts are when you think about it, and gastronomically Britain peaked in the schoolyard anyway. And if you’re troubled by the idea of a fruitless fruit cake substitute, you could throw in some dates or a handful of pecans like I’ve done, but that’s up to you. Serve with ice-cream (mascarpone or vanilla bean), custard, or clotted cream.

This is based on (/basically is) Tamasin Day Lewis’ recipe, and it is very, very, good.

Ingredients:

Pastry

120g white flour
pinch of salt
60g butter
2Tbsp cold water
A spoonful of sugar
1Tbsp cream

Filling

450g golden syrup (Lyle’s is the best)
40g butter, cut into cubes
1 large egg, beaten
3 Tbsp double cream
grated zest of one lemon
4 heaped Tbsp breadcrumbs
Optional: a handful of chopped pecans, chopped medjool dates.

Method:

Blitz the flour, butter and salt into a food processor for twentyish seconds, then add the water and cream, a tablespoon at a time. Stop the processor when the mixture forms a ball. Then take it out, flatten into a disc, wrap in glad wrap and put it in the fridge for at least half an hour.

To roll it out, flour a cold work surface, your rolling pin and your hands, and start rolling. “Roll away from yourself, turning the pastry as you go,” instructs Tamasin. When it’s big enough, roll it over the rolling pin and lie it gently in a greased 23cm tart tin. Let it chill in the fridge for halfa.

To bake: preheat the oven to 190C. Line the pastry with baking paper and fill with rice, and bake blind for 15 minutes. Then ditch the rice and the paper, prick with a fork and bake for another five minutes. Remove from the oven and turn the heat down to 180C.

To make the filling, warm the syrup gently in a saucepan, then - after you’ve taken it off the heat - stir in the butter, stir until melted. Combine the cream and egg and add that too, as well as the lemon zest and breadcrumbs. Stir it, and leave for a few minutes for the breadcrumbs to swell slightly. Then pour it into the pastry and bake for 25-30 minutes. Leave it for at least half an hour, and serve it warm, or wait until it’s cool completely! It’s summer. This is your journey. Serve with custard or clotted cream or vanilla ice cream.

@_samhillman