Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?

iStock
iStock

Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

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Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

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Are Halloween Pumpkins Edible?

Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash
Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash

When people visit their local family-owned pumpkin patch around Halloween, they aren’t usually looking for dinner. The majority of the nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins cultivated in the U.S. each year are carved up instead of eaten, making the squash a unique part of the agriculture industry. For people who prefer seasonal recipes to decorations, that may raise a few questions: Are the pumpkins sold for jack-o’-lanterns different from pumpkins sold as food? And are Halloween pumpkins any good to eat?

The pumpkins available at farms and outside supermarkets during October are what most people know, but that’s just one type of pumpkin. Howden pumpkins are the most common decorative pumpkin variety. They’ve been bred specifically for carving into jack-o’-lanterns, with a symmetrical round shape, deep orange color, and sturdy stem that acts as a handle. Shoppers looking for the perfect carving pumpkin have other options as well: the Racer, Magic Wand, Zeus, Hobbit, Gold Rush, and Connecticut field pumpkin varieties are all meant to be displayed on porch steps for Halloween.

Because they’re bred to be decoration first, carving pumpkins don’t taste very good. They have walls that are thin enough to poke a cheap knife through and a texture that’s unappealing compared to the squashes consumers are used to eating. “Uncut carving pumpkins are safe to eat; however, it's not the best type to use for cooking,” Daria McKelvey, a supervisor for the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden, tells Mental Floss. “Carving pumpkins are grown for their large size, not the flavor. Their flesh can be bland and the fibers are very stringy.”

To get the best-tasting pumpkins possible this autumn, you’re better off avoiding the seasonal supermarket displays. Many pumpkin varieties are bred especially for cooking and eating. These include Sugar Pie, Kabocha, Jack-Be-Little, Ghost Rider, Hubbard, Jarrahdale, Baby Pam, and Cinderella pumpkins. You can shop for these varieties by name at local farms or in the produce section of your grocery store. They should be easy to tell apart from the carving pumpkins available for Halloween: Unlike decorative pumpkins, cooking pumpkins are small and dense. This is part of the reason they taste better. McKelvey says. “[Cooking pumpkins] are smaller, sweeter, have a thicker rind (meatier), and have less fibers, making them easier to cook with—but not so good for carving.” These pumpkins can be stuffed, blended into soup, or simply roasted.

If you do want to get some culinary use out of your carving pumpkins this Halloween, set aside the seeds when scooping out the guts. Roasted with seasonings and olive oil, seeds (or pepitas) from different pumpkin varieties become a tasty and nutritious snack. Another option is to turn the flesh of your Halloween pumpkin into purée. Adding sugar and spices and baking it into a dessert can do a lot to mask the fruit’s underwhelming flavor and consistency.

Whatever you do, make sure your pumpkin isn’t carved up already when you decide to cook with it. There are many ways to recycle your jack-o’-lanterns, but turning them into pie isn’t one of them. "If one does plan on cooking with a carving pumpkin, it should be intact,” McKelvey says. “Never use one that's been carved into a jack-o'-lantern, otherwise you could be dealing with bacteria, dirt and dust, and other little critters.”