How do you feel about fruitcake? For some, it’s a cherished Christmas tradition but for others it’s more of a joke. We’ve all heard the one about the 20-year-old fruitcake that people keep giving away.
There are several different types of fruitcake. There are those that are so loaded with dried fruit and nuts that you need a tall glass of milk to make it through a slice. Then there are the fruitcakes that that have been soaking in spirits since the summer, and one juicy bite makes you feel crazy and wild. There are sticky fruitcakes and dry fruitcakes, heavy fruitcakes and light fruitcakes. If you think you you’re not a fan of fruitcake, just keep looking, as I’m sure there’s at least one out there that you might like.
In my family, fruitcake doesn’t play too prominent a role, as it’s usually shuffled to the side, hiding behind all the tins and platters filled with cookies, candies, crunchy snacks, and other types of cake. But it wasn’t always this way.
When I was writing my new book and going through my great-grandmother Blanche’s letters, she would mention fruitcake often. She’d either be baking one and then sending it to someone in the mail, or a friend of hers may have dropped by for a visit and brought fruitcake as a gift.
As I was looking through her papers I found a recipe for fruitcake she attributed to her friend Mrs. Ollie Edwards. I never met Mrs. Edwards but I did know her husband, a man I called Mr. Edgar. He was a neighbor who helped my great-grandma plant her crops, and I have fond memories of him driving around her farm on his tractor, always quick to offer a kind word or a big smile.
Now, Mrs. Edwards’ fruitcake was unusual in that there weren’t any eggs, oil, or leavenings. Instead, it was simply dates, pecans, and coconut all held together by a bit of flour and some sweetened condensed milk. When I asked my grandma about it, she said this fruitcake wasn’t my family’s usual one, but as the recipe was in my great-grandmother’s collection, I assumed as some point it had been made. I was curious and decided to try it.
The results were not what I was expecting. Instead of being a soft cake studded with fruit, this pecan date fruitcake was chewy, gooey, and yet a little crisp. Are you a fan of dolly bars? Well, then this is the fruitcake for you. While this dessert is a bit more virtuous as it’s filled with dates instead of chocolate chips, it’s just as good. And while the basic recipe is fine on its own, to make it even more seasonal I added some orange zest, cinnamon, and ginger.
What I like about this pecan date fruitcake is that it tastes decadent but also healthy, the latter enabling you to eat more than one slice without feeling too guilty. For instance, as I baked mine up in a Texas-shaped pan, I soon found that I’d eaten most of the Panhandle and was well on my way to finishing up everything between Lubbock and El Paso, but because it’s full of wholesome ingredients like dates and pecans, I didn’t feel too bad.
This is definitely not a traditional fruitcake, though for some I suppose that will be a virtue not a fault. Though welcoming flavors aside, I believe my favorite thing about this pecan date fruitcake is that it was a recipe shared between two friends, perhaps as they sat at my great-grandmother’s table enjoying a slice or two. And for me, being with those that you love is what truly makes the holidays a delicious time of year.
4 cups chopped dates
2 cups chopped pecans
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons orange zest
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease and flour or line with parchment paper a 9-inch baking pan (square, round, or Texas shaped) or a 9×5 loaf pan.
In a mixing bowl together the chopped dates, pecans, coconut, flour, orange zest, salt, cinnamon, and ginger until well combined. Pour in the sweetened condensed milk, and stir until a thick, sticky batter forms.
Spread the fruitcake batter into the baking pan and then bake uncovered for 30-35 minutes or until the top is lightly brown. Be careful not to over bake it, as it will harden as it cools. Allow to cool for 30 minutes before slicing. The cake can keep in an airtight container for several days. It also freezes well.
Note: I used unsweetened coconut because I didn’t want my fruitcake to be too sweet, but if you prefer a sweeter cake, either use sweetened coconut or perhaps add a little sugar to taste.