Fruitcake gets a bad rap. You ask anyone from young to old and they’ll turn up their nose, proclaiming that it’s “dry” or “heavy” or that they’re scared of those neon-colored fruits. Well the times have changed and fruitcake, if made well, can be moist, a little bit boozy and incredibly tasty. At least that’s the case at Arizmendi on 9th Avenue in San Francisco.
While it seems like many of our families avoid fruitcake, it's been around for quite some time. In fact, the name can actually be traced back as far as the Middle Ages with the oldest reference going back to Roman times where they often included pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins. Since the bread is preserved with high levels of booze, crusaders and hunters were rumored to have carried this type of cake to sustain themselves over long periods of time away from home. All of the neon-colored fruits that folks fear today came much later down the line.
At Arizmendi, you won’t see any of those dried fruits either. Instead, you’ll find small warmly-scented loaves packed with dried fruits and nuts from Rainbow Grocery across town. They use currants, lemon zest, orange zest, raisins, papaya, pineapple, apricots, almonds and cherries along with a smattering of spices like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. If you haven’t yet tried it, this is your year. The 9th Avenue location is doing 400 small loaves and they sell out quickly, so make sure to get down there beginning the first week of December to snag yours. They’ll hold until whenever you’re ready to serve it (the brandy functions as a preserver) -- some of the staff actually hang onto their loaves year after year and come in to re-dip them during the annual fruitcake-dipping process.
So what’s the secret? The best fruitcakes are started months in advance and dipped in liquor numerous times to allow the flavors to really mature and develop. Arizmendi began making the fruitcakes well over two months ago and they go through a three-dip cycle in brandy. First, the staff spends time cutting up all of the dried fruits, making the dough, and folding it all together. Suet Cheng says, “It’s mostly fruit and just enough batter to hold it altogether." Baker Erin Singer confirms that it’s almost like a scone dough, packed with so many fruits and nuts that it's really barely held together. After all of the dry ingredients are combined, it’s baked and they allow it to cool for 10-20 minutes. While it’s warm they do the first soak in brandy.
The first soak is the longest, meaning they allow each loaf to hang out for 4-5 minutes in the tub of brandy. Erin says, “they soak it up like crazy the first time around.” The subsequent soakings are for a shorter amount of time, usually 1-2 minutes. After soaking, the bakers wrap the loaves in cheesecloth and plastic wrap and store them for a month. When it’s time to re-dip, they take off the plastic and re-dip with the cheesecloth still on.
I had the chance to try the fruitcake after its last dipping and it was boozier than it will be when you buy it because it was straight out of the brandy. Chatting with the head baker over a cup of coffee and a small slice, I told her how it was the best fruitcake I'd ever had. In fact, I didn't realize fruitcake could be this good. If you could compare the flavor to a color, it’d be the deepest amber imaginable: intensely warm yet simultaneously dark and boozy and packed with chunks of fruit and nuts. And they’re heavy! With each soaking they take on more and more of the liquid making them incredibly moist and dense but in a wonderful-with-coffee way, not a like-a-rock way.
Sure, people do it differently. And it’s been done for hundreds of years which is why, I think, I’m so drawn to fruitcake. The thought that grandmothers and farm hands were dipping fruitcakes in much the same way that I experienced on this sunny San Francisco morning seems important to me. It’s a continuation of a holiday tradition that holds a lot of meaning for some, and little for others. If it’s not part of your cultural or family tradition, I encourage you to make some changes this year. I sure am.
Get Your Fruitcake:
Fruitcakes will go on sale the first week of December and you can call and order one/reserve or just walk in and pick one up. The earlier, the better; they do sell out. Each fruitcake is $14.
1331 9th Avenue (between Irving and Judah)
San Francisco, CA 94122