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Ready, Set, Cook: Part II


Holiday Countdown | By Margaret M. Johnson

No other culinary tradition seems to divide the public like fruitcake: for some it’s a cloying, leaden loaf that deserves all the ridicule it gets, while others — myself included — simply cannot imagine the holiday season without a few servings of the iconic sweet. Love them or loathe them, there’s no denying that fruitcakes are here to stay. After all, they’ve been around since the days when ancient Egyptians left fruit-and-nut cakes on the graves of loved ones, perhaps to sustain them in the after-life, and Romans mixed raisins, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, and honeyed wine into barley cakes that lasted long enough to fortify soldiers through a long campaign. As early as the 1400s, prized dried fruits and nuts were traded westward to England where they were baked into cakes for special occasions, particularly Christmas, and plum or “figgy” pudding (a steamed fruitcake) was popular during Shakespeare’s time. It was the practice of English nobles during the Dickens era to feed carolers with a slice of figgy pudding, which probably accounts for how fruitcake came to be so intertwined with Christmas in both England and Ireland. The tradition was brought to America by the colonists in the years before the Revolution, and by the late 1800s, giving a fruitcake in a decorated tin was a firmly established holiday gift. Many cooks begin baking their cakes as early as November 1, but it’s not too late to start one today.

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Bowl of fruit mix. / MARGARET M. JOHNSON


SERVES 16 to 20

Spiced sweet desserts like this cake have been a part of holiday celebrations for centuries and highly prized because they included nuts and dried fruits, once difficult and expensive to obtain. This cake is generally covered with marzipan, topped with royal icing, and decorated with frosted cranberries, candied fruit, nuts or other festive ornaments, but it’s equally delicious with a simple dusting of confectioners’ sugar.

For the cake

1 cup chopped dates

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped apricots

1 cup sweetened dried cranberries

1/4 cup candied red cherries

1/4 cup candied green cherries

1/4 cup candied mixed peel

3/4 cup chopped almonds

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 1/2 teaspoon Mixed Spice (see Note) or pumpkin pie spice

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 cup whiskey, plus more for soaking

8 ounces butter, at room temperature

1 cup (packed) light brown sugar

5 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1/2 teaspoon salt

For the marzipan topping

1/4 cup apricot jam, warmed and strained

1 (7-ounce) package marzipan, such as Odense brand

For the royal icing

2 large egg whites

3 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

  1. Make cake. In a large bowl, combine dates, golden raisins, raisins, apricots, cranberries, cherries, mixed peel, almonds, zest and juice, mixed spice and nutmeg. Stir in whiskey; cover and let stand at room temperature overnight.

  2. Preheat oven to 275° F. Spray bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with cooking oil spray. Line bottom of pan with a round of parchment paper. Cut a 4-inch-wide length of parchment paper and wrap it around sides of pan to create a “collar.”

  3. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or with hand mixer) on medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, adding some of the flour with each egg. Fold in remaining flour and salt; mix in fruit in two additions.

  4. Scoop mixture into prepared pan a little at a time, smoothing with a spatula dipped in water as you work; bake for 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours, or until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean.

  5. Remove from oven and let cool in pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Run a knife around edge of pan and release sides; remove lining paper. Cover loosely with a clean tea towel and let cool overnight.

  6. Invert cake onto rack, remove bottom and lining paper, and return to upright. Prick cake with a skewer in several places and spoon in 1 to 2 teaspoons whiskey. (Repeat every week until serving time).

  7. Wrap cake in brown paper and tape it closed, then wrap in aluminum foil and store in an airtight container for several weeks to allow the cake to mature.

  8. Make topping. Lightly dust a work surface with confectioners’ sugar. Unwrap cake and brush top and sides with jam. Shape marzipan into a flat disk and roll out to a 13-inch round. Place on top of cake and, starting in center, smooth top with your hand to press out any air bubbles; press down sides of cake. Trim excess. Cover with a clean tea towel and let dry out at room temperature for a day.

  9. Make icing. In a large bowl, beat egg whites with an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or with hand mixer) for 5 to 7 minutes, or until glossy peaks form. Add sugar and lemon juice and beat for about 1 minute longer, or until mixture is stiff enough to spread. With a flexible rubber spatula, spread icing over top and sides of cake. Decorate with fruit, nuts or ornaments. Let icing set for about an hour cutting into slices.

Note: To make Mixed Spice mix 1/4 teaspoon each ground allspice, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Store in airtight container.

Mother's White Fruitcake. ISABEL POULIN | DREAMSTIME.COM



This recipe is one my mother simply called “white fruitcake.” When we were children, we didn’t appreciate the flavor and texture of a traditional Christmas cake, so she adapted this recipe to suit our tastes. Because it doesn’t involve soaking any of the fruit, and uses granulated rather than brown sugar, it’s more like a pound cake with fruit than a true fruitcake.

1 cup whole candied red cherries

1 cup whole candied green cherries

1 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries

1/2 cup chopped apricots

1 cup chopped pecans

2 cups all-purpose flour

6 ounces butter, softened

1 cup sugar

5 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

  1. Preheat oven to 300° F. Butter two 7-inch loaf pans and dust with flour; tap out excess.

  2. In a medium bowl, combine cherries, raisins, cranberries, apricots and pecans. Toss with 1/4 cup of flour; set aside.

  3. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or with hand mixer) on medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, adding some of the flour with each egg. Combine remaining flour, baking soda, salt, and allspice. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture; stir in fruit.

  4. Spoon into prepared pan and bake for 60 to 65 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack for 20 minutes. Invert pan onto rack and let cool completely.

  5. Slice and serve, or wrap in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.




This fruitcake is one that always turns fruitcake naysayers into fruitcake fans. Rather than soak the fruit in alcohol, you boil the dried and candied fruits in butter, brown sugar, and crushed pineapple before mixing it with whiskey and the dry ingredients. It’s a technique that produces a very moist cake.

1 (20-ounce) can crushed pineapple, undrained

4 ounces butter

1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar

2 cups golden raisins

1/2 cup candied cherries, chopped

1/2 cup candied mixed peel

1/4 cup whiskey, plus more for brushing top

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Mixed Spice or pumpkin pie spice (see Note

2 large eggs, beaten

  1. Preheat oven to 325° F. Butter a 9-inch loaf pan, two 7-inch loaf pans, or four 3-inch mini loaf pans with flour; tap out excess.

  2. In a large saucepan, bring pineapple, butter, sugar, raisins, cherries and mixed peel to a boil. Cook, stirring continuously, for 5 minutes, or until sugar melts and mixture starts to thicken. Remove from heat and let cool completely; stir in whiskey.

  3. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, soda, baking powder, salt and Mixed Spice or pumpkin pie spice. Stir into fruit mixture and then stir in beaten eggs; transfer to prepared pan(s).

  4. Bake large cakes 60 to 75 minutes (test with a skewer at 55 minutes), or mini loaves for 50 minutes.

  5. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Prick top of each cake in several places and brush with whiskey while still warm. Remove cake(s) from pan and let cool completely. Wrap cake(s) in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil. Store at room temperature for up to 1 week or freeze for 1 to 2 months.

Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page expands this year to “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” Her newest cookbook, Teatime in Ireland, will be published later this year!For further details on her work or to order a signed cookbook, visit