Dining with Dara: Minnesota fruitcake is no laughing matter

Holiday fruitcake
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's picks for holiday fruitcake include traditional fruitcakes from the Cold Spring Bakery, at left, and the Calvary Episcopal Church in Rochester, center. Behind them are two Italian panettone cakes, one gift wrapped, from Cosetta's in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Fruitcake, depending on your appreciation, can be a holiday favorite, a gag gift or even a doorstop. Fruitcakes have been the butt of jokes for years now, but our food critic, Minnesota Monthly's Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, is here to argue that Minnesota fruitcakes are a tradition worthy of another taste.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl: I like fruitcakes. And I'd argue that a lot of people like fruitcakes — maybe secretly, but they like them. There's a bakery down in Texas pecan country, the Collin Street Bakery, which sells literally a million fruitcakes a year, and another one in Georgia pecan-country that makes four million pounds a year.

Tom Crann: Pecan country. Is that a key?

DMG: Yes. Fruitcakes are essentially ways to deliver the greatest possible number of fruits and nuts through the vehicle of cake. The key to understanding fruitcake is to understand that there once was a time without refrigeration, and without combustion engines. No refrigeration and no combustion engines meant no fruit in the wintertime — nothing. No apples, no pears, no tangerines.

But there were dried fruits, like raisins, or glaceed, sugar-preserved fruits, or brandy-soaked fruits. Put those together with some nuts and you have the very definition of luxury, circa 1700. Every European and Mediterranean culture has some version of fruitcake; there's a kind which was baked on a bed of communion wafers and sent with the Crusaders into the Crusades, and fruitcakes have even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, it was thought that these fruitcakes would make good food in the afterlife, and would also prove to the people on the other side that if you could afford to bring fruitcake, you were rich, and worthy of being taken good care of.

TC: But I take it today we won't be sampling King Tut's fruitcake?

DMG: No. In the Twin Cities we've had a fruitcake renaissance the past couple of years, but more in terms of fruitcake's other European cousins, German stollen and Italian panettone, both of which are fruitcakes with lots and lots of dough — making them less fabulous in terms of sheer nut and fruit power than traditional fruitcakes. But traditional fruitcakes are going strong too, and I'd like to start off with two utterly traditional Minnesota Fruitcakes. The first is from Calvary Episcopal Church, in Rochester, where a volunteer brigade makes 2,000 pounds of fruitcake a year. Volunteers have been making these cakes from the same recipe since 1939. I talked to Jan Larson, who has been leading Calvary's fruitcake project for the last 30 years, and she told me that they start in August, cutting dates and making wax paper forms, and it takes them all the way to Thanksgiving time to make them all, in teams. Over the years they've used fruitcake funds to buy chairs for the church, Christmas screens, things like that.

TC: I understand these are hard to get?

DMG: Calvary's almost sold out for the year — a few lucky listeners might get the last ones, but if you miss it you can bookmark it and order for next year. It's a Minnesota tradition. You can, however, get Cold Spring Bakery's fruitcake.

TC: From Cold Spring, Minn., the town up near St. Cloud?

DMG: Yes. You can also get them in St. Cloud proper, from the bakery's kiosk at the St. Cloud Crossroads mall. As far as I can tell, the Cold Spring Bakery is Minnesota's second-largest fruitcake maker, selling about a thousand pounds of fruitcake a year.

Cold Spring prides itself on not using candied citron. Citron is the candied peel of a citrus fruit which is typically included in fruitcakes, Cold Spring's owner Lynn Schurman told me she thinks that most people don't like citron, and that's why fruitcake has a bad reputation.

In Cossetta's new panettone. Cossetta's, of course, is the St. Paul restaurant and market which has been going strong since 1911. Right now, however, they're expanding dramatically--they'll currently building a rooftop restaurant in the spring. As of right now they have Minnesota's first all-Italian bakery, they brought in a baker from Italy, Luigi Vitali, and the panettone is just fantastic.

TC: Well that is very different... You know, I think you've done it, you've convinced me that fruitcake is no joking matter.

Dara's Picks for the top fruitcakes (and fruitcake relations) in Minnesota:

Calvary Episcopal Church, traditional fruitcake
Rochester
calvary-rochester.org

Cold Spring Bakery
Cold Spring
coldspringbakery.com

Cossetta's, Italian Panettone
St. Paul
cossettaeventi.com

Patisserie 46
Minneapolis
patisserie46.com German Stollen, Italian panettone

Rustica, traditional and chocolate panettone
Minneapolis
rusticabakery.com

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