I’m not much of a Christmas guy – about the warmest feelings I get at Christmas time center around the traditional foods of the season – and so, as I began once again to comb through more of my collection of community fundraiser cookbooks, I thought how nice it’d be to find an appropriate food item that was associated with Christmas. And so, armed with this additional criterion, I began my perusing with purpose.
At first thought, adding another criterion to the search would seem to make the process more difficult – but not really. If we’re most interested in finding old family recipes, certainly traditional holiday recipes would show up before any other kind – and in truth, I had no problem in finding such recipes. However, all such traditional holiday recipes fall into the category of “treats” – and so I had my choice of cookies, candies, or cakes.
I eventually settled on a fruitcake, mostly because I found a very interesting recipe, but also because of the rich history of fruitcake, and it’s association with the Christmas season. But, as we all know, fruitcake carries with it a heavy load of negative baggage, and it’s own rich history of jokes and stories – my personal favorite is the famous Russell Baker article which first appeared in the New York Times in 1983, titled, “Fruitcake is Forever”. Please read this, for it is not only first rate humor, but cuts to the heart of why fruitcake is so reviled in America.
I long ago settled the question in my own mind of whether or not all fruitcake was BAD. I am now among those who know well that there IS such a thing as good fruitcake – this is one example – and I know well why so many Americans believe otherwise. And there is a simple answer – good fruitcake is expensive to make, and much of what is commercially produced in America is made by cutting corners and costs – the end result is garbage, and a product worthy of the endless jokes made on its behalf.
Fruitcake has a long and noble history – the Romans had several kinds of bread made with fruits, but it was not until the Middle Ages, when fruits began to be preserved by drying and candying – and exported to other parts of the world, that this more familiar form of fruitcake came along – this may also have been the time when fruitcake was first moistened with spirits, both to increase its eatable life, and to avoid having it dry out too quickly.
As fruitcake became more and more popular in Europe, and especially England, that popularity even provoked laws that made it impossible to enjoy fruitcake except at holiday times of the year – this did much to connect fruitcake with Christmas forever. What was behind such laws? Well, for one thing, the English psyche itself – that “stiff upper lip” attitude that pervaded the English spirit. Queen Victoria was said once to have stored away a piece of “seasoned” fruitcake for an entire year, because she wanted to know the feeling of deprivation that marked the everyday life of her subjects. Another motivation for such a law was that it became customary holiday behavior to give out fruitcake to wandering peasant carolers, and the fact that fruitcake was a holiday specialty only available at that time of year made it an even more treasured gift – both for giver and receiver.
England was certainly not alone in Europe as a nation that enjoyed its versions of fruitcake – in fact, fruitcake came to find a home in every European country. And as those European immigrants found their way to America, they brought with them their treasured recipes – especially those that were used again and again as families gathered for the holidays.
And it was just one of those recipes I found in a community fundraiser cookbook titled, “Before The Blessing”, by the First United Methodist Church of Birmingham, Michigan. On page 124, I found “Hutzelbrod, an old German recipe”, and this was a beautiful find. Only a quick glance was necessary to know that this truly was an “old” recipe, and that it was transcribed here with much care.
Although this looks like a fruitcake, technically, it is not, it’s a fruit bread – it’s not overtly sweet for one thing – but it certainly is related to fruitcake, and is an evolutionary forerunner. But there are several things which set this fruitcake apart from most other relatives – first, there is no candied fruit -no abominable citron (what is that stuff anyway?). Second, it has anise and fennel seed – how many fruitcakes have you seen/eaten that had anise and fennel seed? And finally, its primary flour is bran! – in this case, All Bran Cereal – Yes, I know that they didn’t have All Bran Cereal in old Germany, and that this is an adaption to American ingredients. My research tells me that one German version of Hutzelbrod (or Hutzelbrot) was even made with rye flour. Here we have a fruitcake/bread quite unlike today’s American misfits, and probably more like what was made at Christmas by German families in the mid 1800s, whether in Germany or in America.
So, here for your enjoyment -and baking fun- is a reflection of an old fashioned Christmas – a time when there were real candles burning on the tree! Enjoy.
Hutzelbrod (Fruit Bread)
Mrs. Richard M Landis
Before The Blessing
- 1 lb. pitted prunes
- 1 lb. dried apricots
- 1 lb. dried pears
- 1/2 lb. dried figs
- 1/2 lb. raisins
- 1/2 lb. currants
- 1/2 lb. almonds
- 1/4 lb. pecans
- 1/4 lb. walnuts
- 2 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. allspice
- 1 1/2 tsp. cloves
- 1 1/4 tsp. ginger
- 1 tsp. nutmeg
- 2 tsp. anise seed
- 2 tsp. fennel seed
- 1 Tbs. salt
- 3 cups All Bran Cereal
- 2 Tbs. soft shortening (or butter)
- 6 cups water (use water in which prunes have been soaked – if using new type of prunes which have been presoaked, use 5 cups water and 1 cup unsweetened prune juice.)
- 1 cup orange juice
- 3 envelopes dry yeast
- Enough white flour to make a stiff dough
- Soak prunes for several hours in water and orange juice which have been warmed, or use presoaked prunes per above note.
- Cut fruit into large pieces or leave whole, and add to large bowl with prunes and liquid from above soaking.
- Mix all whole nuts in 2 Tbs. flour, and add to bowl with fruits.
- Add All Bran, spices, and soft shortening.
- Add yeast.
- Add flour gradually, but gently as possible to keep fruits whole.
- As dough stiffens, it will be necessary to use your hands.
- Mixture has enough flour when dough tends to pull away from sides of bowl and your hands.
- Butter a new large bowl and place dough into it.
- Paint some melted butter on top of bowl, cover bowl with towel and allow to rise overnight in a warm place.
- In morning, decide on the pans you wish to use, and divide dough accordingly.
- For best results, grease the pans and dust with flour as well.
- Place dough into pans and brush melted butter over each loaf.
- Cover with towel and allow to rise in warm place for 1/2 hour, while oven is heating to 300 degrees F.
- Place a pan with 1/2 inch of water in bottom of oven during baking (this keeps crust from getting hard).
- Bake for 3 to 3 1/2 hours.