It’s the cake that keeps on giving.
There are two types of cooks out there: Those who can throw a delicious meal together using whatever happens to be in the fridge in one hour’s time, and those who plan meals out weeks, sometimes months, in advance, and shop and cook accordingly. Certainly there are those of us who are capable of both, but there are die-hards on each end of the spectrum who would have a hard time converting from a last-minute cook to an advanced planner, and vice versa. But luckily there’s a cake recipe that works out for both types of cooks—especially if they know one another—and that’s friendship fruit cake.
Fruit cake, for all of its divisiveness, continues to be a culinary tradition Southerners keep around. Usually because someone in the family knows how to make a fruit cake that’s actually good and silences any naysayers. Friendship fruit cake is one of those sworn-by recipes, but preparing one is not for the faint of heart. Preparations begin a whopping 50 days before you want to eat the cake, so if you plan on it being on your holiday menu, it’s almost time to start prepping.
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Seven weeks before you want to bake your fruit cake, you have to begin your “starter,” a syrupy, sweet liquid that will allow you to candy your own fresh (or canned) fruit instead of using dry candied fruit like most recipes do. The beauty of this process is that by making your own starter, you end up with more liquid than you need for the cake, and it’s tradition to jar up the excess and pass it along to a friend with the cake recipe, hence “friendship” being in the name. The friendship fruit cake becomes a sort of chain letter, with more and more people passing along the recipe the more they actually make it, and since the starter needs to be used or frozen within a few days, whoever receives one really has no excuse to not use it.
To make the starter, you combine apricots, peaches, maraschino cherries, and pineapple with brandy and sugar in a large jar or bowl. You stir the mixture a couple of times a week, and by day 20, your concoction is ready. You’ll drain the fruit, saving the red liquid (that’s your starter), and you can either serve the fruit over ice cream or pound cake. The liquid you’ve saved will then be used to candy the fruit you’re going to use in the cake, a process which requires mixing in additional fruit and sugar over 30 days. After preparing the fruit for your cake, you’ll again drain the fruit, which will result in more starter than you need for another fruit cake (about 2 cups). This is when you get out the extra jars, split up what’s leftover and share it with your friends.