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Fruitcake and the Jews

A week or so ago, just before the Chanukah madness, my husband brought home what he assumed were The Goods from the local Vons (Safeway chain affiliate on the west coast)–a classic fruitcake, green and red candied citron glowing evilly amid chunks of walnut and raisins and other less identifiable bits and topped with syrupy pecans and glacéed cherries. Tacky as hell, we know. We love fruitcake anyway.

Why do Jews like fruitcake more than Christians do? You know, the kind of indestructible fruitcake everyone jokes about passing off to some unsuspecting cousin after having received it 20 years earlier and having kept the tin in the closet all that time underneath some shoes. The kind the British refer to as “doorstop”. The kind all modern cake blogs decry when they present their own lighter, cakier, less fruity and less chewy version as “fruitcake you’ll actually like.” THAT fruitcake.

Well. Private Selection or not, the cake from Vons was…I don’t know if there are new legal restrictions on using rum or bourbon or other booze as a baking ingredient these days (or ice cream flavor; hard to find Rum Raisin anymore). Maybe it’s a California-does-rehab thing, or just a huge downgrading of quality, but it. Was. Awful.

No rum. No bourbon or other appropriate flavoring. Instead, the loaf was permeated with an aggressively soapy flavor/odor (we couldn’t even tell which), horridly artificial and perfumy like fruit-scented liquid hand soap. Or that overpowering Dove soap I always hated as a kid. You couldn’t even taste the raisins or walnuts, which by all accounts, including visual inspection, were present.

We were, perhaps for the first time ever, not tempted to eat any more, not even to try a tiny second taste the next day to see if it was really as bad as we thought the first time. Just passing the open packet on the table was enough to convince us the bar of Dove that must have fallen into the batter was still giving that loaf its younger-looking complexion. After several days of forlorn looks in its direction, we actually threw it out.

In any case, I’ve been looking for a trustworthy recipe for fruitcake ever since and not succeeding much. In a place where there is no fruitcake, strive thou to make taka a fruitcake. (Not exactly sure what the “taka” part means in Yiddish; the way my mother says it, it means something like “especially” or “such a”, but less polite and more ironic, as you might use it when pointing out how incredibly garish and over-the-top the neighbor’s Christmas lights are with the flashing Rudolph and the “Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree” music blaring out right behind the inflatable Hula Santa in the grass skirt–now that’s taka a Christmas dreckoration!)

Oy. My childhood sarcasm (I grew up in the very Jerry Falwell south; it was bad, baby) has taken off since we moved into a neighborhood where the displays really outcompete each other on strobe factor. And this right after a two-week power outage in Los Angeles. The stores sell unbelievably green- and red-dyed taco chips so bright they look like triangles of kindergarten craft felt. And yet they object to a little green food coloring in their fruitcake…

As I was saying, it’s never been entirely clear why Jews like fruitcake (well, some of us do. Well, my family, anyway.)

I’ve occasionally suspected that the really dense, dried-fruit-and-nut-and-almost-no-cake fruitcake, perhaps minus the day-glo food coloring, had Jewish roots. A lot of our food still reflects the pre-chocolate preferences of the Middle Ages, when all the ingredients in a typical fruitcake were considered treats and vivid coloring was a sign of royal style. (Not to knock chocolate, which was apparently first brought to prominence in Europe by some Jewish confectioners in Bayonne, but that’s a later thing).

Dried fruits and nuts, pressed into cakes or just loose for the noshing, are a Spanish/Moorish thing for the end of a meal; they’re a French thing both in the Basque-leaning southern areas and in Alsace-Lorraine; they’re a Russian/Polish thing (certainly for Jews; at Chanukah, it’s traditional to gamble for rozhenkis mit mandlen–raisins and almonds–when you play dreidl). We’ve had big communities in all those places in the past thousand years or so.

The presence of candied citron–also known to us as “etrog” (or “esrog” for us Ashkenazim)–puts it over the top in my mind. It might just be a Mediterranean thing–like Greek spoon sweets, maybe, or the Italian mostarda fruits, but citron is particular to our history as one of the four agricultural symbols of our major fall harvest holiday. Sukkot was so important in ancient Israel that it nearly rivaled Rosh Hashanah. A blemish-free etrog and a lulav (a baton of willow and myrtle twigs held in a woven handle of palm fronds and shaken with the etrog in six directions every morning of Sukkot week) were depicted in the mosaic floors of the synagogues in Tiberias and Beit She’an, and used as often as the menorah as the official symbol for Israel–even on coins.

Tiberias synagogue floor mosaic showing the lulav and etrog

Tiberias synagogue floor mosaic showing the lulav (baton of palm, willow and myrtle branches) and etrog (citron)

Sukkot was so important that when it couldn’t be celebrated on time one year, due to a little matter of war against invading Assyrian Greeks, it was commemorated a couple of months later, after the invaders were chased off and the synagogues and altars were cleaned up. It would have been sacrilege to observe it late and still perform all the normal rituals, but it was still emotionally important to the public to remember it in some way as soon as the war ended. Hence the week-long festival of Chanukah, which happens to be going on right now–tonight was the seventh night.

In the centuries after the diaspora, Jews found ways to bring etrogs from Israel for the holiday and afterward, they’d preserve them by drying or candying them (is this the origin of the Boston Orange and Lemon Slices? or Chuckles?). Nothing was wasted, especially anything aromatic and rare like citrus, and especially in the northern communities (Russia particularly) where oranges were treasured (still are).

The bitter citron, almost all peel and no pulp, is less prominent in our culture nowadays and kind of hard to find outside of the holiday imports, but lemons and oranges, particularly the peel, still characterize desserts of Jewish origin, particularly in Spain and up into France, where many of us fled after the Inquisition.

The fact that classic fruitcake has so little batter to bind it and is usually made without yeast signals a Jewish origin to others as well; this time, as a possible dessert for Passover, when leavened breads are forbidden.

The Gastronomie section of Le Monde, one of the major French newspapers, features all kinds of regional curiosities, one of which, to my surprise, was the Extreme (or, depending on your point of view, Supreme) Doorstop version of fruitcake. A lot of soaked-up dried fruits and nuts, particularly pears and figs, a lot of cinnamon and aniseed, and almost no batter–even less than the classic Texas Tw0-Step Doorstop. Almost invisible.

And if I can be bold and translate their description for you, they also seem to think the Alsatian Jews started the fruitcake phenomenon.

“Beerawecka” (Alsatian fruitcake) recipe in “Le Monde” ‘s recipe archive

Le Beerawecka (ou Berewecke en allemand) est un gâteau alsacien non levé, traditionnel des fêtes de fin d’année. Il est principalement constitué de fruits secs (noix, noisettes, poires, abricots, figues, raisins…) et de fruits confits (orange et citron) macérés dans du Schnaps (eau-de-vie) de quetsche ou de mirabelle, parfois de cerises (Kirch) maintenus entre eux par une très fine couche de pâte fortement cannelée. On le découpe et le sert en très fines tranches. Origine: Cette pâtisserie alsacienne s’offre traditionnellement pour Noël. La plupart des gens pensent que le nom Beerawecka (ou Berewecke) provient de Beera signifiant poire en alsacien et de Wecka signifiant gâteau, petit pain… Toutefois ce gâteau nous provient de la communauté juive autrefois fortement implantée en Alsace et qui a laissé quelque traces dans le dialecte et la culture alsacienne. Pere signifie Pessa’h en yiddish. En effet, le Berewecke n’est pas un gâteau aux poires, mais bien le gâteau de fruits secs traditionnel de la pâque juive en Alsace, que les chrétiens ont repris pour leurs fêtes de Noël.

[my translation]:

Beerawecka (berewecke in German) is an unleavened Alsatian cake served traditionally at year’s-end celebrations. It’s made mostly of dried fruits and nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, pears, apricots, figs, raisins) with preserved orange or citron peel, macerated in plum Schnaps [the French lists two kinds of plum here; I give up] or  kirsch, and bound together with a very thin, strongly cinnamon-[NB: and anise-, at least in the actual recipe] flavored batter. It’s served in very thin slices. Origins: This is generally served at Christmas in Alsace. Most people think the name Beerawecka comes from “beera” for “pears” in Alsatian dialect, and “wecka” for “cake” or “bun”. In any case, this cake actually comes from the long-standing and formerly prominent Alsatian Jewish community, which has left numerous traces in Alsatian culture and dialect. “Pere” signifies “Pesach” in Yiddish [really? we always just said “Pesach”…] In effect, Beerawecka isn’t a pear cake but rather a dried-fruit-and-nut cake traditional for Passover in Alsace and which Christians adopted for their Christmas celebrations.

Don’t you love French food logic? It sounds so certain, so completely professorial, so factual, that I’m now inclined to disagree just to disagree, even though I started out elated at my find because it seemed to bolster my argument. I was going to agree, provisionally, but now I’m not. Because I’m entitled to more than one opinion at a time even if I do like fruitcake. Besides, I’m not sure I like their tone (sniff!).

For one thing, the newspaper’s explanation that it’s not really a pear cake would make so much more sense if there weren’t in fact a whole pound of dried pears in the recipe. Along with pounds of everything else, and a vague French-style note (you can picture the lackadaisical wave of the hand at our trivial concern) that it makes “several” fruitcakes–the exact number isn’t really that important!

For another, fruitcake is just way too heavy and packed for a springtime dessert that you’re trying to convince all your relatives isn’t “choke cake”. Even in Alsace, I’m sure that’s a factor at Pesach.

…but I might try it anyway, scaled down to one or two pans so I don’t go nuts and this fruitcake project doesn’t go pear-shaped. Or linger until Pesach.

BeeraweckaAlsatian fruitcake (adapted/translated from the Le Monde recipe archive) Makes “several” loaf-sized fruitcakes–I dunno. Is this a sane thing to try?

  • 500 g (4 1/4 c.) flour
  • 500 g (about 1 lb. or a little more) each dried pears, figs and dates
  • 250 g (about 1/2 lb.) raisins
  • 250 g (about 1/2 lb.) each prunes, walnuts and almonds
  • 250 g (1 1/4 c.)  sugar
  • 2 cups (4oo ml. or 16 fl. oz.) plum Schnaps or kirsch
  • 1 T cinnamon
  • 1 t powdered aniseed
  • 1 pinch (say maybe 1/8-1/4 t) powdered cloves
  • 25 g (about 2 T or 1 oz each) candied orange and lemon peel (or marmalade–“confit” can mean either, I think)
  • a little orange juice and lemon juice (not in Le Monde’s ingredient list but called for in the recipe)
  • simple syrup (1 c. sugar, 1 c. water, boiled together until thickened but not colored, and squeeze a bit of lemon juice in as it cools–also not in the original ingredient list but called for in the recipe)

1. Dissolve the sugar and spices in the Schnaps. Soak each of the dried fruits separately in warm water to reconstitute. Simmer the pears and prunes separately to soften them. (note: you could probably nuke them a minute or so covered with a bit of water to cut the pain factor in this elaborate recipe).

2. Blanche the almonds in boiling water (again–nuke in a bowl with a bit of water for a minute, covered? I’d have to try it before I can recommend it definitely) and remove their skins. Chop the almonds and walnuts roughly. Chop all the softened dried fruits into small pieces and mix them together, then add the sugared Schnaps and let them macerate overnight.

3. The next day, add the flour and a little orange and lemon juice as needed–just enough to make a “dough” texture, not enough to swamp it–and mix well with your hands. Wet your hands with cold water as you work and shape the mixture into loaves 8 inches by about 3-4 inches wide and about 2-3 inches wide and high–in other words, fruitcake-sized loaves…

4. Bake at gas mark 4-5  (350-375 F or 176-190 C) for 1 hour 15 minutes or  until firm. Baste the loaves with the syrup after they’re out of the oven, and decorate with blanched whole or sliced almonds, walnut halves, etc.

4 Responses

  1. My mother made an amazing fruitcake — just enough cake to hold the other stuff together. Then it got repeatedly soaked in rum for a month or so beforehand. It never got turned into doorstops or lasted very long.

    I think the citron clinches it — it’s so medieval, and who uses that nowadays except the Chosen People?

    (My mother’s grandfather was a late 19th C. crypto-Jew in the South, and a lot of the traditions and recipes and attitudes survived. I pass really well as long as there’s no bacon around.)

    Hope the rest of your holidays go well.

    • Hi Lurkertype and Happy New Year! (I’m counting the minutes until my kid goes back to school) Your mother’s recipe sounds just about right to me, especially if she was able to hold it down to AN amazing fruitcake, not 52 or so at a time. Mine would never last the whole month without toothmarks. I’m really just afraid to try it–so are my hips–none of the recipes I’ve seen make anything less than way too much (at LEAST two bricks and two bundt-style rounds in The Joy of Cooking). The Southerners I grew up with at least used to have a fair amount in common with Jews for cooking (pre-Lean Cuisine, anyhow). They both go for elaborate home-baked goods (oh, my giddy great-aunts), nuts, and sweet, even syrupy kinds of desserts, and they both do long-cooked stews and beans. Southern cooking’s the only other place I’ve ever encountered “compote” of stewed dried fruits in syrup. Used to be considered elegant; now it’s so far off the foodie radar I don’t know if it’ll ever reappear. Belongs in the era of white lace curtains and tablecloths, I guess. Actually, the ham and bacon do have the beef-based Jewish counterparts of salami and pastrami–just as much salt and fat, but twice the garlic… Not that I’m recommending my dad’s Bronx-style salami omelets (which violinist Itzhak Perlman, of the same generation, apparently also grew up with in Israel, because he demonstrated them once on Jeff Smith’s “The Frugal Gourmet.”) But I guess I won’t diss them either, except to say don’t do it, fight the urge–if the cholesterol don’t getcha the garlic grepse (burp) will!

      • Listen, I will eat your father’s omelet. Once. I have never turned down salami or pastrami, though the salt is starting to get to me.

        My mother made very few fruitcakes, only for us and the most special people, and gave away all but one. The only bowl in the house big enough to mix it in was the fancy cut-glass crystal punch bowl, and of course it was so dense she had to mix it by hand (literally).

        It’ll be Monday in just a few more, and then you’ll have YOUR happy new year.

      • You are a brave, brave woman. Although we loved salami omelets as kids, neither my sister nor I are carrying on the tradition. The salt has long since started to get to me, too (obviously, I guess, given some of my more virulent posts on this blog)…and I really envy you the fruitcake expertise. Happy New Year to you as well (and watch a little of the Rose Parade, which I’m going to try to sneak down to on Monday morning if I can find a spot–used to be able to just walk down half a block past everyone who’d camped out on our street.)

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