Christmas fruitcake—fruits and nuts soaked in sweet liqueurs, aged until moist, or aged longer until the flavour is more complex. The cakes are often ridiculed, but long-lived both in terms of tradition and shelf time. And when made well, they’re able to traverse languages and borders, from British Christmas cakes with currants and glazed cherries to yeasted German stollen dusted with powdered sugar to Caribbean raisin cakes drenched in rum.
To Quebec-based fruitcake maker, Ken Ilasz, the thought of fruitcake need not cause noses to wrinkle, and the dense loaves of artificially coloured fruit need not be thrown 1,420 feet from an Omega 360 cannon as part of the incredibly wasteful (though some may say necessary) annual “Great Fruitcake Toss” in Manitou Springs, Colorado.
To Ilasz, there are the traditional British Colonial-inspired fruitcakes we know in North America, and then there are fruitcakes with wanderlust. His fruitcakes are made with Quebec ingredients such as haskap berries, black currants and maple syrup, as well as more exotic flavours including dried mangoes, star anise, prunes, cherries, chocolate, figs, apricots, kirsch, rum, and brandy.
And he’s big in Japan. No, he’s not a Montreal restaurant much loved by Anthony Bourdain. It all started, of course, when he met a woman. Then, while in Japan, he found a distributor already importing Quebec maple syrup. The distributor told him to put some maple syrup in the cakes and they’d sell, which they did, like hot(fruit)cakes. Sales spike at Christmastime when employees buy them as gifts for bosses and staff. And it’s a little more incognito under a tree (and more easily wrapped) than a traditional $100 melon.
Never heard of haskap? The high antioxidant berry comes from Hokkaido, Japan but is now produced in Quebec. It grows well in Canada, Russia, and all other successful hockey nations (aka “anywhere cold,” for sad non-hockey fans out there). It’s more sour than sweet, like a mix between a raspberry and a cranberry. And soaked in booze, it tastes like Christmas. Combined with chocolate in his newest Tundra fruitcake, it’s a well-rounded sour, bitter, and sweet.
Of Ilasz’s line of ten fruitcakes, the most popular is the pear, fig, Saskatoon berry and poppyseed Jubilé. There’s the traditional version (with or without lard) with cranberries, raisins, apricots, cherries, figs, black currant, brazil nuts, walnuts, molasses, maple syrup, brown sugar, rum, brandy, kirsch, cinnamon, butter, nutmeg and allspice—a mouthful in itself. And then there are versions with hibiscus, Kaffir lime, tonka beans, long and tailed peppers, honey, ginger, macadamia nuts, pecans, Inka berries, and dark chocolate. Also available are taster tins with either two or six flavours. So far, there are no gluten-free, dairy-free options, but if a market for it develops, it could happen.
While neon green and red dried fruit are standard in store-bought fruitcakes, Ilasz’s versions are free of artificial colours, high-fructose corn syrup, added sulfites, and preservatives. That’s what the booze and sugar should be for—preservation. And different types of alcohols do a better job than others. The artisanal part of the cakes comes from knowing for how to long to soak each fruit and in what. Kirsch, for example, is better than rum at sucking the moisture out of the cake so it doesn’t go bad. It also combines better with cherries than raisins. The haskap berry gets about a month in eau de vie. The figs, over a year in brandy.
Since there’s enough booze in these cakes to knock out an elephant, they can last for years but the texture of the cake changes during that time. Though much of the alcohol evaporates during baking, the flavours and preservative effect remain. The trick is to balance the flavour of the fruit, nuts, spices, and the heady liqueurs with the texture of the cake itself. The older the cake, the more the flavours meld together, but the drier the cake becomes. Think of it as the scotch of the dessert world, where age is better; Ilasz even recommends eating his cakes with fois gras. It’s not 30-year Glenfidditch, but there are at least a couple of candles on this cake.
The fruitcakes have an official shelf life of three years, with Ilasz preferring the three-year-olds to the younger, moister cakes. But since the Japanese stores where he sells his products will only sell items for up to two-thirds of their shelf life, which, in the case of the fruitcakes is also three years, the cakes sell there from three months old only until the young age of two.
For all the liquor, sulfite-free dried fruit, and labour involved in making the fruitcakes (he drives to farms to buy berries, monitors multiple batches of alcohol-soaked fruit, and bakes for days and days), they’re incredibly inexpensive: from $35 to $45 for a fruitcake weighing slightly less than a baseball bat. You can order online for local pick-up from Boulanger Bassin B&B in Montreal, or mail-order them from Ilasz directly. Around Christmas, they’re available at Chez Latina in Montreal’s Mile End.