Alton Brown’s Fruitcake
I started making fruitcake for my extended family for Christmas in 2004 or 2005. I didn’t foist it on them; I only started making it after they told me, unprompted, that they liked fruitcake! I was thrilled to have an excuse to make it.
Ever since, I’ve made fruitcake (or something like it) to give to them as gifts. I myself prefer chocolate over fruitcake, but I’ve made a point of sampling what I make to see if I can make a fruitcake that I like. And I have.
I’ve given out slices of this fruitcake to friends as well. People who don’t like fruitcake are surprised that they like it. “That doesn’t taste like fruitcake. It tastes good!”
This fruitcake is a dense and moist, lightly spiced cake filled with actual dried fruit. It doesn’t contain any of that candied, neon green and red stuff that you’re not sure is actually fruit. This fruitcake, adapted slightly from Alton Brown’s recipe, has a not-excessive amount of rum, but is equally delicious made alcohol-free with apple cider instead.
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What is Fruitcake?
First, what is fruitcake? Fruitcake is a cake made with lots of dried or candied fruit, spices, and not much flour, and then laced with liquor to preserve it. There’s supposed to be just enough batter to hold the fruit together.
Here in the United States, fruitcake is often the butt of a joke. They’re supposed to be inedible and gross. And I would believe that some out there are. I’ve googled a lot of pictures of fruitcake recently, and what I’ve seen really hasn’t been very appealing. Unlike this one, which has real dried fruit.
The US version comes from the British version (once known as plum cake). It’s dense and relatively heavy.
However, there’s a lot of variations of fruitcake around the world, especially across Europe. Just to name a couple of examples – In Germany, there’s lebkuchen and stollen (a yeasted bread, but studded with fruit and coated in powdered sugar); in Italy, there’s panforte and panettone (more of a yeasted cake, also studded with fruit). On the alcohol-side, there’s the example of rum cakes in the Caribbean.
Due to the preservative power of sugar and liquor, fruitcake will last for a while, even at room temperature. It’s supposed to get better as it ages. I can testify that the fruit for fruitcake, as I cooked it in testing this recipe, smelled rather good.
How to Make a Good Fruitcake
What have I learned from all my attempts making fruitcake?
- Don’t use fruit you don’t like. For me, don’t use too many raisins – I simply don’t like them
- Only use relatively fresh dried fruit – this should be obvious, but it bears reminding. Anything shriveled up in the back of your pantry won’t rehydrate very well
- Don’t make the fruitcake too clovey – subtle spice is better
- Don’t make the fruitcake too boozy – that is, as long as you want to actually eat it
In 2012, I made my best fruitcake to date. Continuing on my Good Eats kick, I tried Alton Brown’s Fruitcake recipe. What makes this fruitcake special? It’s lightly spiced, for one – not too many cloves. I only used fruit I liked – sure, I used some raisins to bulk it up, but I also used cranberries, cherries, mixed berries, apricots, and candied ginger. It also includes some apple juice (or cider, as I used), and a not-overwhelming amount of rum.
Also, I made mini loaves, great for snacking. And gifting.
How to Make Fruitcake
Making fruitcake is not difficult at all. It’s as easy as making banana bread, but just takes a little more time.
First, you prepare your fruit. Combine all the fruit, candied ginger, and orange and lemon peels with your rum (or apple cider/juice, if you want to make it alcohol-free).
(You can peel your orange and lemon, or zest them. Peeling and chopping the peels gives you bites more like candied orange peel or citron. If you forget about your orange and lemon, you can add a little lemon or orange extract later.)
Let your fruit soak overnight – in the fridge if using cider. This lets the dried fruit begin to rehydrate. Forgot to start it yesterday? Microwave it all for about 5 minutes, then set it aside to cool off.
When you’re ready to make the fruitcake, combine your fruit and soaking liquid with sugar, butter, apple cider/juice, and spices. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. This made the liquid nicely syrupy. I let the mixture cool for at least 15 minutes; this is important so that the heat from the fruit doesn’t cook the eggs, and the flour doesn’t clump up and cook when you add it.
Next, in your cooled saucepan, add the eggs and stir well to combine with a wooden spoon. Add the flour and leavenings. Stir in nuts if using. Then, pour it into your pan(s).
How to Make Fruitcake in Mini Paper Loaf Pans
If you’re using a 10-inch loaf pan to make a single big loaf of fruitcake, grease the pan or line it with parchment, then fill it with batter. Bake it at 325F for 60 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean, free of batter. Baste immediately with brandy as below. I haven’t tested that baking time, but that’s what Alton Brown uses.
However, I recommend making mini loaves. They bake faster, and they’re easier to give as gifts! Being able to give away fruitcake is also good if you’re just trying it out and don’t know if you like it or not.
To make mini loaves, spray five (6 x 2.5 inch) small paper loaf pans , place them on a baking sheet, and dish out the batter evenly. Don’t fill the loaf pans more than about half full.
For paper loaf pans, you should adjust the baking temperature down from 325F to 300F. I first checked my loaves at 20 minutes, but ended up baking them for 37 minutes. Your times will vary in your oven. A toothpick will come out clean. Remove your mini loaf pans from the baking sheet and place them on cooling racks.
If you’re using small ceramic loaf pans, or metal ones, I recommend keeping the temperature at 325F.
Whether making a big loaf or small loaves, you’ll want to baste them. To make them non-alcoholic, brush it with apple cider. If using alcohol, baste them with rum or brandy. Alton Brown used a spray bottle to do this, and I have in the past as well, but honestly, who wants to clean a spray bottle? A silicone brush works just fine and is easier to clean.
Leave your mini loaves in their pans. Store them in an airtight container. Brush them with brandy every few days until you give them away. If you’ve been using apple cider instead of alcohol, I suggest storing the fruitcake in the fridge.
When it was time to give the fruitcake as gifts, I slipped the gift loaves into small cellophane bags, which I sealed with stickers and tape since there wasn’t enough plastic overhang to use a twist tie. You can also wrap with a few layers of plastic wrap and use festive stickers to tape the ends if you’re not shipping them.
How Does Fruitcake Taste and Smell?
The fruitcake certainly smells like brandy when you unwrap it (if you use brandy, of course). The flavor of the alcohol is definitely there as well, but isn’t overwhelming. Without the heavy spices, the flavor of the cake is more like a rum cake than a spice cake. The cake is dense – but not soggy or too heavy – and has lots of fruit.
Not being a fruitcake enthusiast, I’ve felt it to be a struggle to get through pieces of some other fruitcakes I made before I started this blog – but not this one. I enjoyed eating it, in relatively small pieces. This is where I think the mini loaf pans come in handy, because they ensure that your slices will be small.
Honestly, it is a testament of the quality of this fruitcake that Alex and I have enjoyed it this much.
What to Do with Leftover Fruitcake
Have a fruitcake but want to do more than just eat slices of it? Make French toast! Mix together 3/4 milk and 1 egg, then dip your slices of fruitcake in it. Cook over medium heat on a nonstick griddle or skillet. This works best if you let your slices of fruitcake dry out a little.
Want other ideas? See this list of 8 things to do with leftover fruitcake.
Want to check out a few similar recipes? You can see a review of King Arthur Flour’s Golden Fruitcake and check out recipes for Panettone, Stollen, Panettone Muffins, and Fruitcake Drops if you want a few fruitcake-like alternatives.
Interested in making other food gifts? See my favorites, as well as a few tips, in this blog post about Giftable Food.
In the past:
One Year Ago: Fudge-Topped Sugar Cookies (Berger-style cookies)
Five Years Ago: Banana Muffins
Six Years Ago: Apple Galette
Seven Years Ago: Pan de Muerto Bones
Homemade fruitcake is much better than store-bought! And easy to make. Uses only dried fruit - no candied fruit here!
- 1 cup raisins (150 grams)
- 1 cup currants (150 grams) (I usually substitute half raisins and half cranberries)
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries (75 grams)
- 1/2 cup dried blueberries (75 grams)
- 1/2 cup dried cherries (75 grams)
- 1/2 cup dried apricots (92 grams) (chopped)
- Zest of one lemon (zested or chopped coarsely) (you can use 1/8 teaspoon lemon extract instead)
- Zest of one orange (zested or chopped coarsely) (you can use 1/8 teaspoon orange extract instead)
- 1/4 cup candied ginger (35 grams) (chopped)
- 1 cup gold rum (227 grams) (use apple cider instead if desired)
- 1 cup sugar (198 grams)
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter (140 grams/ 1 1/4 sticks)
- 1 cup apple juice (227 grams)
- 4 whole cloves (ground) (or 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves)
- 6 allspice berries (ground) (or 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice)
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground dried ginger
- 2 eggs
- 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour (264 grams flour)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pecans (chopped) (optional)
- Brandy or rum for basting
Combine dried fruit, candied ginger, and zests. (If using orange or lemon extract, add it later instead.) Add rum and let set overnight, or microwave for 5 minutes to hydrate the fruit.
Combine fruit with its liquid, sugar, butter, apple juice, and spices in a pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5-10 minutes. The fruit will plump up and the liquid will become syrupy. Remove from heat and cool for 15 minutes.
Once the fruit mixture is cool enough that it won't scramble the eggs, stir in the eggs, one at a time. Mix in orange and/or lemon extracts, if using. Add flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder to the mixture, mixing until combined. Stir in nuts.
Pour into a greased or parchment-lined 10-inch loaf pan and bake at 325F for 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If using 6 x 2.5 inch small paper loaf pans, fill 5 greased paper loaf pans and bake at 300F for 20-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (This took me 35 minutes, most recently. Check early, though - you don't want dry fruitcake.)
Brush hot cake immediately with rum or brandy. Allow to cool completely before removing from pan to a cooling rack.
Store in an airtight container and brush with brandy every 2 or 3 days. (If not using alcohol in the cake, I recommend storing it in the fridge.)
Use whatever dried fruit you would like. It ends up being 617 grams, or 1 1/3 pounds, plus the candied ginger.
You can substitute apple juice/cider for the rum, and brush with apple cider after baking, to make this recipe alcohol-free. I recommend storing the fruitcake in the fridge if you do.
Adapted from Alton Brown. Cooking time for the large loaf pan is his; baking times for small loaves are mine.
Recipe updated 10/19/2018
(Originally posted January 17, 2013. Updated October 2018.)