Since 1913, when the first one was mail-ordered in the U.S., fruitcake has been the symbol of the holiday gift you give away as soon as you receive it.
The weighty brown cake, studded with neon colored chunks of fruit that could decorate a house if they were strung alongside some lights, has been around for centuries — it was banned in Europe in the 1700s not because it was too awful but because it was too rich due to all the butter and sugar. Its punchline status started soon after it was dispatched across the country.
Fruitcake is one of a list of holiday foods whose bad reputations precede them. Among them: dry panettone, equally dry maraschino-cherry studded holiday hams and medicinal eggnog.
But just as some bad food is being rendered obsolete, in part by millennials (bye bye, American cheese), others have had their reputations restored by artisans anxious to redeem them. Here are five foods that have turned the tables courtesy of Kentucky monks, New York bartenders and expert bakers.
Cake fashioned to look like a tree stump is a delicacy in its native France and invariably a mess when it’s recreated in the U.S. With stale crumb and impenetrable frosting armor, it’s the classic example of a dessert that should be seen and not consumed — till now. Bakers offer stellar versions at spots such as Brooklyn’s Bien Cuit (almond cake, dark chocolate mousse) and Bi-Rite in San Francisco (salted caramel buttercream is their secret), although they’re too delicate to mail order. Sweet Pies Bakery in Napa Valley makes one that ships. Their tender flourless chocolate cake is wrapped around bittersweet truffle filling, then coated with fudge frosting and sprinkled with gold dust. $99; Sweet Pies Bakery via Goldbelly
Spiral-cut, alarmingly pink hams, brined in enough sodium nitrate that they don’t spoil, anchor no small number of holiday meals. They’re often injected with so much salty water there’s not much else to taste and a lot of leftovers for sandwiches. The esteemed Edwards Virginia Smokehouse is known for their country hams as well as an incredible peanut-fed Surryano jamon, but they also sell a terrific bone-in ham that’s been lightly smoked in hickory. The honey-brown sugar glaze gives the porky meat a sweet fruity edge. From $99; Edwards Virginia Smokehouse
Despite its reputation for being gleefully bad, good fruitcake is readily available. From Texas, the Collins Street DeLuxe Fruitcake is packed with candied cherries and a surprise ingredient — papaya — and nicely infused with honey. RedTruck Bakery’s Havana Fruitcake is tropically spiced with a mix of fruits, pecans and coconut; it’s soaked in dark rum for months before it’s done. But one of the best representatives of genuinely delicious fruitcake is handmade by Trappist monks at a monastery deep in Kentucky whiskey country. Gethsemani Farms’s Kentucky Bourbon Fruitcake has a high ratio of pineapple, cherries, raisins, citrus zest, and pecans, bound together just enough sticky batter and doused with no small amount of local bourbon. From $40; Gethsemani Farms
Panettone has long had a reputation as fruitcake’s stale Italian cousin. Now, the yeast-based dough that takes hours and hours to make has become the “Mount Everest of baking” according to the New York Times. “Great craft bakers have learned about panettone’s unique processes and turned it from a holiday terror to treat,” says Sullivan Street Bakery owner Jim Lahey who makes a superior one. His New York bakery specializes in bread ( such as this sourdough you can make at home), but over the holidays it’s transformed into a mini panettone factory; bakers make about 300 a week. Besides a traditional raisin and citron loaf, there’s a special version studded with tart cherries and chocolate — if you serve it slightly warm the chocolate melts into the fluffy interior. $50; Sullivan Street Bakery via Goldbelly
George Washington had his own incredible indulgent recipe for the high-cholesterol holiday beverage that included a heady mix of brandy, rye, Jamaica rum, and sherry, along with the namesake whipped eggs, cream, and spices. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the one-note, sweet-as-sugar commercial options. For bartenders, eggnog is their “Everest,” a maligned specialty worthy of redemption (consider this pumpkin version). “Like pina coladas, egg nogs have a bad rap, but when they’re done right and given some dimension, they can be some of the best drinks out there,” says Ryan Chavis, Union Square Cafe’s beverage manager. His stellar version is based on a recipe from the restaurant’s pastry team; it had too much high-proof alcohol to freeze into ice cream, so it became a popular order at the bar.
Four Spirit Eggnog
Adapted from a recipe by Ryan Chavis of Union Square Cafe. Editor’s note: Spirits can be adjusted taste; recipe includes raw eggs.
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch each of ground cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon
1 cup overproof American whiskey, such as Wild Turkey
1/2 cup dark rum, preferably pot-still, such as El Dorado Smith & Cross
1/2 cup amaro, such as Montenegro Averna
Large ice cubes, for serving (optional)
In a large mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, sugar, honey, milk, cream, salt, and spices. Whip until light in color and very thick; a loose ribbon will form when you drizzle a little of the mixture on top. Chill until serving.
Before serving, gradually beat in the spirits until incorporated. Serve in small glasses or cups with a large ice cube, if desired.