Turning the dreaded fruitcake into a likable drink
Each year around this time, children around the world are cautioned to straighten up their behavior or expect a most disappointing Christmas morning.
The threats involve everything from lumps of coal to new underwear.
Naughty adult friends and relatives usually don’t get cautioned. They just wake up Christmas morning and find fruitcake.
“The worst Christmas gift is fruitcake,” Johnny Carson quipped on “The Tonight Show” 31 years ago. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”
Dislike for fruitcake isn’t confined to Earth. Some obliviously naive or painfully sadistic NASA officials once agreed to send a pineapple fruitcake into space. But while Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were willing to face the dangers of being among the first humans to walk on the moon, the fruitcake came back untouched. It’s currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and will remain there until the museum decides to gift it to someone.
Even while heated political elections come and go, the divide on fruitcake is eternal. People are either for it, quietly, or against it, vehemently.
The first recorded fruitcake was an uncooked Roman loaf made of pine nuts, barley mash, pomegranate seeds, raisins and honeyed wine. It was called a lanx satura because of its varied ingredients as well as its sweet and bitter flavors. Satura, not surprisingly, is the basis of the word satire. Satire is bringing someone fruitcake as a hostess gift.
By the 16th century, what Village Voice writer Robert Sietsema called “the fruitcake plague” had infected both the New World and all of Europe, mostly because of inexpensive sugar that came from the colonies in the 1500s.
So, what is it that’s so loathsome about fruitcake and what in the world could it have to do with cocktails?
Well, begin by thinking over the second question first. One of the most important and replenished ingredient in any self-respecting fruitcake is alcohol. Be it brandy, bourbon or rum, the heavy-handed addition of spirits not only makes the cake, it gives it a life span somewhat longer than the cockroach.
As for the first question, what isn’t there to like about a brick-heavy food full of unidentifiable, dried-up, odd-colored, fruity things and soggy nuts? And yet, with every reluctant bite, there’s a fleeting whisper of something that, by itself, tastes pretty good. It could be cinnamon or nutmeg. It could be a bit of the fruit not trapped in smothering, half-cooked batter. It could be the alcohol.
It was just this kind of thinking that got a number of mixologists to asking, “What if we leave the cakes for sandbagging or carpet bombing, but take the alcohol and some of the flavors and create the fruitcake cocktail?”
And it happened.
By deconstructing the fruitcake, they were able to highlight the needs of the perfect holiday cocktail. Like the cake, it needed to be both fruity and sour. It needed a nut flavor and it needed cake, albeit in liquid form.
Their results created as many drinks as there are uneaten fruitcakes, but with much better results.
Some chose to use actual dried fruits to infuse rum, bourbon or brandy. Grenadine easily contributed the dried cherry flavor while Frangelico added hazelnut. Others brought in the nuttiness by finding nut-flavored liqueur or Amaretto. A vanilla vodka added the cake flavor, as did using a mixture of soft butter, cinnamon, brown sugar and nutmeg stirred directly into the other ingredients.
Over at Preamble Lounge & Craft House, 20801 Interstate 45 in Webster, owner Joshua Jones and staff readily picked up the challenge and came up with the Bunker Hell, a nod to the establishment’s Revolutionary War theme.
Jones and his troops focused on the simpler aspects of fruitcake, coming up with ingredients that mimicked the fruit, the sweet and sour and the spices. They used the orange-flavored Cointreau for the fruit, the almond flavors of Amaretto for nuts and a bit of clove-infused Demerara syrup for spice.
“This works really well for tasting like fruitcake,” Jones said. “I was also looking at some different dark rums, which I think would work well in coming up with this kind of drink, but we all decided this one was it.”
And since nothing about fruitcake is ever subtle, Jones made a point of garnishing his Bunker Hell with candied ginger and topping it with a splash of cranberry bitters.
Even though finding people who admit to eating, much less liking, fruitcake is a challenging quest, the longevity of the beast indicates it will not be going away. Fortunately, and thanks to the brilliance of mixologists everywhere, you can now have your cake and drink it, too.
Recipe created by Preamble Lounge & Craft House
1 ounce brandy
1⁄2 ounce Cointreau liqueur
1⁄2 ounce Amaretto
1⁄4 ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
1⁄3 ounce Demerara syrup infused with cloves (see recipe)
2 dashes of cranberry bitters
Pour all ingredients except the bitters into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake, then strain over ice into a cocktail glass. Add the bitters, then garnish with candied ginger and or grapefruit peel.
1 cup Demerara sugar
1 cup water
1⁄3 cup whole cloves
Combine sugar, water and cloves in a small pot. Over medium heat, bring just to a boil while stirring, then immediately reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 20 minutes. Let cool.
Strain the syrup into a sealable container, cover and keep refrigerated. It will keep for at least two weeks.