Americans have a love-hate relationship with fruitcake. Although millions of kilograms are baked yearly, some people prefer to hurl the dessert in distance competitions such as the annual Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado, rather than eat it. Now, a physicist from the United Kingdom explains some science behind fruitcake, which may help bolster the confection's reputation.
When he's not busy with polymer physics, Peter Barham of the University of Bristol experiments on food. His methods range from monitoring temperatures in food that's baking to examining the crystal structure of molecules in bread; many of his findings are included in his book, The Science of Cooking. He turned to fruitcake in time for the holidays and suggests some ways to improve your fruitcake.
Despite prevailing practice in the United States, he says, fruitcakes often taste better when they're aged than when they're fresh. The skins of dried fruits contain the same tannins that age red wines, creating complex flavors that young wines--and fruitcakes--lack. Moreover, the high sugar content of homemade cakes prevents bacterial growth, although Barham warns that some commercial fruitcakes might not survive the aging process. He recommends aging only those that are expected to last more than a month or two. "Look at the use-by date," says Barham. "If it's 6 months away, it might as well be 6 years."
Although Carl Winter, the director of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California, Davis, isn't as quick to disregard package dating, he agrees that fruitcakes can age well. Having seen firsthand a 25-year-old fruitcake--it looked half its age--he says the key is a cool, dry environment and lots of fruit. "With such dense material, there is less opportunity for air contact" to allow microbes to grow, he says.
Although aging adds flavor, the cake may dry out and become stale. But although it seems to lack water, the liquid is in fact just bound up by the cake's starch. If the cake gets dry, Barham recommends wrapping it tightly in aluminum foil and warming it to about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which disrupts the material's starch crystals and releases water, returning the cake's silkiness.
Cookbook author Dolores Casella has her own method of handling a stale, dry fruitcake. "Pour a liberal amount of brandy over it and allow a day or two for it to soak in," she says. Happy holidays, no doubt.