Christmas Fruit Cakes – Tips and more!

Winter begins in November/ December. Wind chills.  Frosty mornings. Frigid temperatures. Naked plants and trees. Heavy clothes. Dampness and darkness. Large gas bills. These are some of the not so pleasant things.

Mulled wine and warm cider. Soups and breads. Christmas. Baking fruit cakes and Christmas pudding. Christmas tree and nativity decoration. Ornaments and icicle lights. Buche de Noel and candy canes. Hymns and carols. Santa and the fire place. Poinsettias and pine trees.  A brand new year and few carried over un-kept resolutions. These are some of the pleasant things.

Boozy fruits

Personally, I love Christmas. I love cooking and baking that is filled with traditions. Stir up sunday to bake the flaming Christmas pudding, Buche de Noel/ Yule log for the Christmas eve dinner, Peppermint in candy canes that also serve as a remedy for winter colds, Egg nog/ Egg milk punch to toast on one’s good health, Gateau des Rois/ King’s cake in honor of the three wise men for Epiphany and lots more.

Few more weeks to Christmas! It’s time to soak the dried fried fruits to bake mystically melting fruit cakes. I’ve been baking fruit cakes since 2011. Not too long though! But I’ve baked hundreds of pounds. This has become the quintessential Christmas favorite of my family and friends. I’ve experimented quite a bit with different types of fruit mix, different alcohol and liqueurs, non-alcoholic substitutes, different versions with jewelled fruits, subtle fruits, bold fruits et al. I must say, it’s labor intensive, time consuming and a pricey project. The process takes muscle as well as makes a big hole in the wallet. I tend to lose few pounds when I bake large quantities of fruit cake. One needs to plan ahead of time – choosing the type of dried fruits and nuts, soaking liquid (alcohol or non-alcoholic), appropriate packaging, long term storage I love baking fruit cakes. Despite the elbow grease spent, I enjoy whole process. I love the aroma of warm spices wafting in my home. Now let’s prepare to bake a fruit cake that is dense yet moist, bursting with deep and rich flavors, pleasantly spicy and without overpowering booze.

So, what’s the hype about soaking dried fruits? What dried fruits do I soak? What alcohol do I use? What if I do not prefer alcohol, is there a substitute? That’s what this post is about. I do not claim that my suggestions are traditional and right, but these are tried and tested over months to know the results. Do try out if you’re convinced. Traditionally dried fruits are soaked three months to six weeks before Christmas. The longer you soak the fruits the better. The cake is baked a week or two before Christmas and fed/basted with alcohol. These two weeks help the fruits mellow and mingle with alcohol, flavors mature and the cake ripens.

What dried fruits do I soak? This depends on the kind of fruit cake do you want to bake. Would you like your fruit cake dark and bold or light and mild. Dark colored fruits give dark fruit cakes, light colored fruits give light fruit cakes. I prefer a mix of both to balance out colors and flavors. Please use the best dried fruits and nuts you can get. Good stuff always gives flavorful results. I use organic, preservative free dried fruits without artificial flavors or sweetness, artificial colors or other additives. Sulfur Dioxide or E220 is the usual suspect that is used ‘safe’ preservative in dried fruits to retain freshness and color. Use unsulfured dried fruits as folks allergic to sulfur react to this preservative. Unsulfured dried fruits are superior in quality.

Dark Dried Fruits

1) Vine fruits like Raisins, Currants and Sultanas make a major portion of the soaked fruits. They are all dried grapes with difference in origin, color and type. Raisins are dried white moscatel grapes that’s dark in color. Sultanas are golden and plump. These are also called golden raisins. Currants are smaller than raisins and sultanas made from corinth grapes. I chop these roughly. Do not mince finely. These fruits give texture to your cakes. Fine minces will weigh down the cake making it dense.

2) Dates (not fresh ones) – Choose naturally sweetened, moist, pitted dates. Here in the USA, I use either Medjool dates or Deglet noor dates. I quarter the dates. Keep the size chunky. When mixed with the cake batter, these break down and disintegrate sooner than other fruits.

3) Plums (dried)/ Prunes – These mildly sweet dried plums pack the cake with exceptional moistness and juiciness that lingers in your mouth even after you scoffed off that slice of fruit cake. I use pitted prunes. Just quarter the prunes for soaking.

4) Figs – Dried figs give crunch to the cakes. These dried fruits add honeyish flavor and mild sweetness to the fruit cake. I nip the stem and chop into small pieces.

Jewelled dried fruits – These dried fruits give that festive appearance to fruit cakes with their vibrant colors.

1) Glacé cherries – These are candied red cherries. Fresh cherries are steeped in thick sugar syrup and dried to preserved. While steeped in syrup, color is added to make it red or green or any color of choice. I detest the neon colored ones and won’t use it in my fruit cakes. These are chewy in texture. Chop this roughly.

* I came to know from a reliable source that whatever dried fruit is sold as cherries in India is made from a local fruit called Karonda (Hindi) / Kalakai (Tamil). These local fruits are steeped in sugar or saccharine, artificially colored and passed off as glazed cherries. Please check the source before you buy. 

2) Dried Cranberries – These add a sweet-tart flavor to the fruit cakes.

Golden dried fruits – These fruits result in light and subtle fruit cakes.

1) Dried Apricots – These orange colored plump, moist, chewy dried fruit has a musky flavor with faint tartness.

2) Dried Tropical Mix – You may want to use a mix of dried pineapple, dried papayas, dried mangoes and dried bananas. I HATE multi colored tutti-fruitti, so I never use those.

* Tutti- Fruiti sold in the Indian grocery stores is dried papaya. 

How much dried fruits do I need? Use a combination of the above mentioned dried fruits sticking to the quantity your recipe calls for.

Candied Citrus Peel – I use a mix of orange, grape fruit, lemon, citron and lime. The method to make candied peel is the same for most citrus fruit. I’ve used this recipe countless times with success.

Candied Ginger – Ginger adds spicy heat and wonderful fragrance to fruit cakes. I follow this recipe. It’s cost effective and guarantees quality.

Spice mix 

Spices used are cloves, cinnamon, all spice berries, nutmeg, mace, star anise. Cake seeds are used in some recipes. I use caraway seeds or shah jeera.

  • 1 Tbs ground allspice (looks like black peppers)
  • 1 Tbs ground cinnamon
  • 1 Tbs ground nutmeg
  • 2 tsp ground mace
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 Star Anise

Blend these spices and store in the refrigerator. Do not make large quantities as the flavors dissipate and cinnamon takes over the flavor profile.

Black Treacle – This dark, thick liquid is obtained from the residual molasses which is drained from the molds used in the sugar refining process. Traditionally treacle is used in fruit cakes to give that robust deep flavor, moist texture and rich color. I substitute with unsulfured molasses. If you can’t find treacle or molasses (Gur ras in Hindi), make a syrup with palm jaggery. This gives a similar flavor and viscous consistency. You can also use honey or maple syrup. But the flavor is mild.

Molasses/ Treacle substitute

1 cup grated palm jaggery. Khejur gur in Hindi/ Karupatti vellam in Tamil

3/4 cup water

Method – Bring water to a boil. Add grated jaggery. Keep stirring till the syrup reaches the thread consistency (215 F – 220 F). As the water evaporates, the density increases and the syrup thickens. Strain syrup using a tea strainer to remove debris. When cooled the consistency should be like honey. Store in a bottle. Keep refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before using.

Dark Caramel Syrup (also called Black Jack) – Indian plum cake recipes call for black jack which is used for it’s dark color and slightly bitter taste. If you’re accustomed to making caramel syrups, go ahead and boil the sugar syrup till it reaches 345 F – 350 F. The caramel becomes very dark and intense. If you boil further, then bin the syrup and start over. Real black jack (400 F sugar syrup) is way too bitter.

Nut mix – I use a mix of walnuts, pecan nuts and almonds. I do not soak the nuts in alcohol or fruit juice. Gently roast the nuts to bring out the oils, cool and chop roughly, then mix with cake batter just before filling cake pans and bunging into the oven. I do not use cashews as it has a soft texture and lacks crunch.

Alcohol soak – The soaker is absolutely your choice. Alcohol dictates the fruit cake flavors as well as act as a preservative. Good quality liquor/ liqueur result in good flavor. Usually brandy, dark rum or red wine is used. Brandy and red wine have similar undertones as they are made from grapes. Rum is made from sugar cane molasses and has a distinct aroma. You can also use a mix of these alcohols to make your own concoction. A balanced mix of liquors and liqueurs dictate the flavor profile of the fruit cake. I’ve also observed that, the basting liquor or liqueur is what pronounces the fruit cake flavors rather than the soaker. Use enough alcohol to cover the dried fruits. Keep shuffling the mix every other day for two weeks. Later, weekly shuffling works just fine. Excess alcohol must be drained and used for feeding the fruit cake. The whole ordeal is done at room temperature. Refrigeration not required.

After a good soak, dried fruits will plump up absorbing the liquid. Remember the process called osmosis we studied in school. Same thing happens here. Dried fruits soaked in liquor/ liqueurs do not require refrigeration. Alcohol acts as a preservative as well as a flavor enhancer. Use a glass jar for storing the soaked dried fruits. I use large cookie jars. If you need to make large quantities (about 80 – 100 lb dried fruits), buy large food grade plastic containers and use for storage. Try not to use metal containers as alcohol reacts with metal. Strictly no aluminium containers. Stainless steel seems alright for a few days or weeks, but not recommended for long term storage. If the steel is not good quality, the interiors of the utensil may rust and you may not even notice it because it’s opaque. Eventually, the flavor of the fruit mix is affected, worse may be wasted.

Non – alcoholic substitute – Hot black tea can be used to soak the dried fruits. Make a decoction using two Assam or Darjeeling tea bags in a cup of hot water and use as a soaker. This deepens the flavors of the dried fruits. Grape juice is a good alternative to brandy. Orange and apple juice are good for light colored fruit cakes. If you choose to make an alcohol free fruit cake, soak the dried fruits overnight in a glass bowl. Let the dried fruits plump up. If you intend to use the dried fruit mix the next morning, drain and use. If not, store it in a bottle and refrigerate till needed. The drained juice or tea can be used for basting.

Rum extract and Rum essence – Rum extract is concentrated rum flavor which is deep and complex. This contains low or no alcohol content. Rum essence is the imitation version made with artificial ingredients. If you avoid alcohol due to allergies or religious reasons, check the flavoring source before use. Depending on the brand and make, these flavoring agents may or may not contain alcohol. If you use alcohol for baking the fruit cakes, you do not need any flavoring agents. If not, a dash of flavor helps amp up the flavor profile of your fruit cake.

Tips and trouble shooting

– Fruit cakes are dense bakes. It crumbles when sliced due to chock-full dried fruits, nuts and low flour content. Hence, they are not suitable for torting and carving. Refrigerated fruit cakes slice better.
– Fruit cakes do not need a frosting or icing to be served. It’s good on it’s own.
– Soaked dried fruits must be plump with soaker. When baked, the soaker oozes out keeping the fruit cake moist and flavorful. Use good amount of alcohol or substitute to cover the dried fruits while soaking.
– Traditionally, fruit cakes are covered with marzipan and royal icing.
– Low oven temperature (250 degree F – 275 degree F) and longer baking times (2-3 hrs) bakes a moist fruit cake. I told ye it’s an expensive project
– Though fruit cakes do not rise high, don’t fill the pan beyond 2/3 full. You do not want an overflowing cake with a dry and crusty top.
– Dredge soaked fruits and nuts in flour, dust excess and mix with the cake batter. This ensures the fruits and nuts do not settle at the bottom.
– Line outside of the cake pan with several layers of brown paper for added insulation. This helps in not drying out the cake.
– Tent the top with a foil if you notice excess browning due to long baking time. Wrap fruit cake with cling film or saran wrap once cooled. The crusty top softens the next day.
– Fill a tray with water (1/4 inch level) and keep it below or next to the cake pan. The vapor keeps the oven moist and eventually bakes a very moist cake.
– Cool cake completely in the cake pan before de-molding.
– If you intend on saving the fruit cake for later use, age the cake with alcohol for 3-4 weeks, wrap in several layers of cheese cloth and cling film, then freeze. Freezing retards maturing of flavors.
– Do not store fruit cakes in metal pans like aluminium foil loaf pans. Alcohol used for basting reacts with the metal and pits the foil. It also gives an off flavor to the fruit cake. Personally tested!
– Use a wooden spoon to mix and stir the soaking dried fruits. Metal reacts with alcohol.
– Store fruit cakes in a dark and cool place. Humidity is a killer. If stored well, fruit cakes last years. Personally tested! I had a sample for a year. Fed it fortnightly, re – wrapped it and finally sampled it. That was the most flavorful fruit cake I’d ever tasted.

Fruit cakes are a labor of love. Take care of those precious babies and they will taste divine. Here’s the first boiled fruit cake recipe I tried in 2011.

Fruit cake 1

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65 thoughts on “Christmas Fruit Cakes – Tips and more!

  1. Nuti

    Hi..
    Thank u for such a detailed post.. u hv taken lot of pain to explain nd thank u very much for dat..
    bt I hv a query.. can spices and caramel syrup be added at d time of soaking? Some recepies call for it.. is dat ok?
    Also in the cake do we hv to use caramel syrup or palm jaggery syrup, or both? Wht would taste better? Caramel or jaggery?
    Also, r d candid peels nd cherries also to be soaked for a year wid fruits? Or to be added later?
    And on soaking dates I hv experience dat dey melt. Whts d solution?

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Hello,

      Thanks.

      1. That must be alright. But I didn’t see the need to do that as good quality dried fruits are naturally sweet. I prefer to add spices to the cake batter.

      2. Ideally, treacle should be used. Closest substitute is molasses. Caramel (black jack) or Palm jaggery syrup is the next possible substitute. Choose what suits you.

      3. Peels and cherries – soaked as long as you want. I soak for months.

      4. Depends on the quality of the dates. I soak all dried fruits for months. That definitely enhances the flavors.

  2. Nuti

    One more query.. can d cake be kept at room temperature for a year, if feeded weekly? Wil it not spoil in hot summers?
    Nd if freezed, wil it nt stop it’s maturing process?

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Yes. I did experiment with keeping the cake for a year and it lasted. Best tasting! Mine didn’t spoil, not even during summer. Californian summers are hot, but not like Indian summers.

      Yes. Pls read again as I have explained it all in the post.

  3. Habeebat

    Thank you for the lovely post. But i hav a question, about the alcohol free cake, how long can it stay, and what else can i add to preserve it. Thanks

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Thanks.

      I do not know a preservative that is potent as alcohol. Non alcoholic fruit cakes will last a week or so, depending on the way it’s stored.

  4. Betsy

    Hi Cheryl
    Great write up.
    Just one query, is it alright to use both molasses and caramel syrup in the cake. Other than a darker looking cake, will it alter the texture or taste.
    I am trying to modify my tried and tested fruit cake recipe. So the query.

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Hi Betsy,

      Thanks. You can use both. But I don’t see the need as black caramel used as a replacement for molasses. Using both will not alter taste or add taste. It’s absolutely your choice.

  5. Leona

    Hi Cheryl,
    Do you line the bottom of your pan with brown paper also? How many layers is “several” for you?
    Thanks

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Hello there,

      ‘Several’ is 3-4 layers of brown paper on the sides. I do not line the bottom of my pans for insulation.

  6. Garrington

    The brown paper goes on the outside of the pan – right? How does it stay up. I would think tape would melt.

    Reply
  7. carolyn

    I appreciate the tips you gave regarding fruitcake, next week I’ll be making my 4th & final batch of fruitcake. I understand once fruitcakes season for a few weeks it can be frozen. My biggest challenge has been keeping my hubby out of it 🙂

    Reply
  8. joyce

    Hi! could you help me with non-alcoholic preserve. I tried using grape juice but the preserve got very mouldy. how can I avoid this & for how long can I preserve it?

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Alcohol is the preservative in Fruit cakes. If replaced with juice or other alternative, it shortens the shelf life. Refrigerate the non-alcoholic cake.It can keep for a couple of weeks.

  9. melissa martina

    Hello Cheryl,
    I tried making Christmas fruitcake and a friend complained that it was dry. Where do you think I have gone wrong? How is the texture supposed to be? Fruitcakes are supposed to be dense, right?
    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Fruit cakes are dense, but never dry. Over baking can or high oven temperature can result in a dry cake. Fruit cakes are usually basted with alcohol or fruit juice to retain moisture. Not sure if you did this. Texture of a good fruit cake is dense, moist, little chewy due to the dried fruits. Flavor – Sweet and spicy with a myriad of warm spice notes. Boozy if alcohol is added. Otherwise it takes on the flavor of the alternative. But a good fruit cake is NEVER dry.

  10. Pingback: Eggless fruit cake recipe | How to make eggless christmas fruit cake

  11. CT Kuruvilla

    Hi Cheryl, I was looking for info on keeping cake moist and avoiding crust. I found those here. Thank you. Besides the info, it made very interesting reading. If you have authored any books on the subject, please let me know

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Thanks. Delighted to know you found this write up useful and interesting. I haven’t authored any book on this subject or any for that matter. But I would love to write one when things fall in place.

  12. Shirin Manzoor

    Hi Cheryl !!! This is my first time to try to make a plum cake. It has taken time to find this info and I it’s very useful , one que : can we add date syrup instead of black jack or molasses as I think it’s a better option , we are not changing the basic nature of sugar by caramelizing, dark in colour and healthy too ( more over I have a huge tin of date syrup that I wanted to add in ) please reply
    Pls post a good recipe for red velwet cake as good as from “Blueberries “

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Thanks Shirin for stopping by.

      Sugar is a processed outcome of cane juice. Molasses is a by product of cane juice, not a caramelized version. Alternative in the absence of molasses or treacle is home made black jack. Caramelized sugar a.k.a black jack or Molasses or Treacle gives a robust flavor that dates syrup lacks. You can use dates syrup, but the flavor ain’t the same.

      What’s ‘Blueberries’? A bakery or eatery..and where is this located. Haven’t heard of this in California.

  13. Leah

    Could u pls suggest me a good brand red wine for soaking dry fruits that is available in India
    And will there be any difference in taste and texture of the cake while we use rum or wine or brandy or whisky
    Pld guide me ..

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      I have no idea about liquor brands available in India. There is no change in cake texture. Obviously, there will change in flavors with different alcohols.

  14. Patty

    Does soaking the fruit then affect the quantities in the recipe? Do you weigh the dried fruit before soaking or after? I am no expert but I have made some good fruit cakes in my time, more by luck than good management I think. 🙂 Thank you in advance for your reply.

    Reply
  15. Jeanie Tan

    Dear Cheryl,
    Thank you very much for your contribution, learn so much from you. Looking forward to see more of your recipes and advice!

    Reply
  16. Karen

    Cheryl thanks a lot for the wonderful recipe and all the tip .. i need you help , i picked up some packed Black Raisins and was about to soak them when i spoted some to have some sort of covering … now i dont know if thats dirt or something else … can i wash them under running water and them soak them in alcohol.. kindly advice

    Reply
  17. Kay

    Hi thanks for your very comprehensive post. Have you tried soaking with white wine or a mixture of white and say cranberry juice? I have a few bottles sitting in the cupboard and thought to use the whites for the fruit cake. Also do you think white wine work to ripen the cake.

    Reply
  18. Sucheta V

    Hi Cheryl,

    What is the difference between a boiled fruitcake against the non- boiled? Also, some recipes
    call for egg whites to be beaten stiff and mixed to the batter.Does this make the fruitcake lighter? Look forward to hearing from you!

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Boiled fruit cake – Dried fruits are boiled in alcohol/ fruit juice to hydrate and absorb flavor. Traditional fruit cake – Dried fruits are soaked over a period of time. I use regular creaming method to make fruit cakes. I don’t see the need to beat egg whites separately, as fruit cakes are dense cakes,not sponges.

  19. Sagarina Datta

    Hi! Thank you for these wonderful tips. I have a query. I have tried wrapping my cake both in cling film and butter paper and bast them with alcohol everyday. But the top of my cake gets soggy. Please guide me in preserving and basting the cake. I live in Kolkata. Thank you

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      You’re welcome.

      Probably you’re over basting the cakes. Hence, the soggy surface. Poke holes with a skewer and baste only as much as needed. You need to just wet the cakes, not drench it.

  20. Zarina

    I’ve also baked fruit cakes. Reading you experience felt as if I was the one that ha wrote it. Meaning to say the experiences were the same. Am about to start my baking for this year.
    Wish you happy and excellent christmas baking.

    Reply
  21. Thelma Pena

    Hi! My first time to make fruit cakes. I baked them 1 week ago and cling wrapped them and stored in the refrigerator. Suddenly i realized hiw will it age if its inside the ref, so i searched and read your post. My question is, if ever that i will remove my fruitcakes from ref and follow your way of storing them, will they nit produce molds ?

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Alcohol is a preservative that will deter mold growth. If stored properly in a cool and dark place, the cakes will keep well for years. I’ve never had any cake grow mold. I’ve been doing this for years.

    1. Cheryl Post author

      I didn’t quite get you. What do you mean by tiny holes? Is it possible for you to send a picture? I may be able to help you after seeing the picture.

  22. Suneetha gr

    Hi Mr Cheryl, you have given so much information on Christmas fruit cake, it is really a great help. Now I know how exactly I can bake a perfectly balanced fruit cake. It is amazing. Thank you for sharing your valuable information. All the best! Seasons Greetings to you and your family!! God bless you all!!

    Reply
  23. Suneetha gr

    Hi very useful information, thanks a ton for sharing, now I feel confident that I can bake a perfectly balanced fruit cake. Thanks once again, seasons greetings to you!!

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Kahlua has a strong coffee flavor. Unless you want a distinct flavored fruit cake, I wouldn’t recommend liqueurs like kahlua, Malibu etc. I suggest you stick to neat brandy, rum or wine.

  24. Ileen Raman

    Thank you so much for preservative tips. I was anxious to learn how to make black Treacle. Everything is so informative.

    Reply
    1. Cheryl Post author

      Hi Jackie,

      No sure why the dried fruits you soaked is bitter tasting. Alcohol does taste a wee bit bitter. Probably, that could be the reason. Bake a small loaf and see how it tastes.

I truly appreciate your feedback. Drop me a word.

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