Max Jacobson-Fried has never tasted a fruitcake he didn't like.
"For the first 23 years of my life, I hated fruitcake, but I'd never eaten it," said Jacobson-Fried, general manager of Freed's Bakery, which has two locations in Las Vegas. "I tried it six years ago, and I was absolutely astounded that I really liked it."
Derek Franceschini, executive pastry chef of Luxor and Excalibur, doesn't understand the bad reputation fruitcake has.
"There's a preconceived notion that nobody likes fruitcake," he said. "However, every year it's made again and again and again. If nobody likes it, why is it still being made?"
That, it seems, is the million dollar question, since millions of pounds of the stuff are reportedly sold around the world every year.
Sure, it's a tradition in some countries. But in America, fruitcake has had a bad rap since the days when Johnny Carson ruled "The Tonight Show" and swore that there was only one fruitcake in the world, which just kept getting regifted.
"The people that get fruitcake love it," said Chris Herrin, a pastry chef and co-owner of Lulu's Bakery, which currently is a food truck that makes stops at Metro Pizza locations.
"I think it's just one of those things that's always been poorly done," Herrin said. "It's one of the oldest cakes known to man. It's a fun thing, but I think because it's so hard to make, for the commercialized versions they simplified it and it just made a bad product out of it. I think the original was never what it looks like now."
Jacobson-Fried said the only fruitcake he ever tried was that produced by Freed's Bakery. "I've never had a bad fruitcake because I'm just too nervous to try something, because of the reputation."
Ironically, Jacobson-Fried said Freed's hasn't sold fruitcakes the past couple of years, but that it wasn't for lack of demand. Ingredients went up so much, he said, that it became too expensive to produce and sell. But because of customer requests, they're considering bringing it back, he said.
So how does a good fruitcake differ from a bad fruitcake? For the most part, they said, it's a simple formula.
"If you're willing to buy a $2 fruitcake, you're willing to accept a $2 fruitcake," Franceschini said. Ever the fruitcake diplomat, he hastened to add, "It's not that it's a bad fruitcake; it's a fruitcake that's made with inexpensive ingredients to serve a certain clientele."
"Like anything, fresh ingredients really help," Jacobson-Fried said. "With our fruitcake, we're always making sure you've got chopped citrus fruits, raisins, walnuts. We soak them in brandy for a week."
"Everything always starts with the ingredients -- buying the best quality possible," Franceschini agreed.
Franceschini said he starts with a basic poundcake batter, adding seasonal spices, candied cherries, apricots, dates and assorted nuts. He marinates the fruits and nuts for a month in rum before folding them into the cake batter, at a ratio of somewhere between half and three-quarters fruit to cake. It's served primarily on the resort buffets and for banquets.
Herrin said he began making fruitcake when he worked for Andre Rochat, chef/owner of Andre's at the Monte Carlo and Alize at the Palms.
"It was kind of a joke, because no one says you can make a good fruitcake," Herrin said. "Over the years, I think we finally made a good fruitcake."
The secret? A lot of dried fruits and none of that nasty candied citron.
"There's a lot of fruit to cake," Herrin said. "When it bakes, the cake would just fall apart." He brushed a brandied syrup on the cake for seven days; "that allows you to slice it."
"A lot of love goes in those things," Herrin said.
It appears Franceschini would agree.
"I take two loaves home from the first batch," he said. "I eat it before I come to work -- toasted and spread with butter.
Dried fruit-nut mix:
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup dark raisins
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup dried cherries
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup pecan pieces
1 cup brandied cherries
2 ounces liquid from brandied cherries
1 cup butter
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
Zest of 2 oranges
Zest of 2 lemons
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 large eggs
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Brandy simple syrup (recipe follows)
Mix fruit-nut ingredients together and allow to sit for 24 hours.
To make cake, beat the butter, sugars, honey, zests and nutmeg until well blended, then beat in eggs slowly one at a time, scraping the bowl as needed to ensure a smooth mix. Mix the flour and salt and add to butter mix along with vanilla extract. Then fold in fruits and nuts and mix until batter comes together.
Spoon the batter into two greased 8½-by-4½-inch loaf pans, filling them three-quarters full. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 to 35 minutes, or until cake tester comes out clean. (The cake should be a darker golden brown.) Allow cakes to rest in pans for 10 minutes to cool and then flip onto a wire rack to finish cooling.
For brandied simple syrup: Bring 8 ounces of water to a boil in a saucepan. Turn off the heat and add 8 ounces of sugar and 8 ounces of brandy.
Once the syrup has cooled, brush the tops of the cooled cakes, then flip over and brush the bottoms. Do this step for six days; on the seventh day, wrap with plastic wrap and serve at your Christmas party this year or freeze for next year.
Makes 2 fruitcakes
-- Recipe from Chris Herrin of Lulu's Bakery
MRS. MACKINNON'S CHRISTMAS FRUITCAKE
2½ cups golden raisins (about 12 ounces)
2 cups dark raisins (about 9 ounces)
1¾ cups dried currants (about 8 ounces)
1¾ cups chopped glaceed fruits (such as red cherries, pineapple and apricots)
¾ cup chopped candied orange peel
½ cup water
½ cup plus 6 tablespoons dark rum
2 teaspoons each grated orange and lemon peels
1 teaspoon Lyle's Golden Syrup or light molasses
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1¾ cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup self-rising flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2¼ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1½ cups (packed) dark brown sugar
5 large eggs
Mix first six ingredients in large saucepan. Add ½ cup rum; bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring often. Remove from heat. Mix in grated orange and lemon peels, syrup and baking soda. Let stand until fruit mixture absorbs liquid, stirring often, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 10-inch-diameter springform pan, then line bottom and sides of pan with parchment; butter parchment. Sift both flours and salt into medium bowl. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until well-blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add flour mixture; beat until just blended. Stir in fruit mixture. Transfer batter to pan. Cover pan with foil.
Bake cake 2 hours. Reduce oven temperature to 275 degrees; continue to bake, covered, until tester inserted into center comes out clean but slightly moist, about 30 minutes longer. Transfer to rack; remove foil. Pierce top of cake all over with skewer. Drizzle 6 tablespoons rum very gradually over cake. Cool completely in pan. Cut around pan sides to loosen; remove pan sides. (Cake can be made 3 weeks ahead. Wrap in foil; chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.)
-- Recipe from Bon Appetit magazine
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@review journal.com or 702-383-0474.