What’s in a name? As Shakespeare has Juliet say, a certain flower we know and love will always smell sweet, even if we don’t call it a rose. When contemplating the beloved, complex, old-time confection known as Japanese Fruitcake, I find no help whatsoever in its name, which leads you two completely wrong directions.
First, it’s not a fruitcake in the terms of the famous holiday classic, once esteemed and now mostly maligned. Mind you, it is a cake, and it contains fruit, in the form of chopped raisins or whole currants, and orange and lemon zest and juice in the icing. Spices figure in the cake as well, another quality shared with traditional fruitcake. But rather than being a “great cake”, a substantial cake, filling a tube pan or two loaf pans, and able to last for weeks due to a frequent anointing with sherry, bourbon, or whiskey. This is a layer cake, placing it around the turn of the twentieth century in American culinary history, while fruitcakes date back to seventeenth century England.
Second, it has no characteristics which explain its designation as being somehow Japanese. Its form as a classic layer cake, and its ingredients, from eggs, butter, and sugar, to sweet spices, raisins, nuts, and grated coconut, are common in Western kitchens, but not traditional basics in the home or commercial kitchens of early 20th century Japan. Citrus fruits were well known in Japan at the time, but not as signature ingredients which would call for a shout-out in naming a new-fangled dessert. My best guess is that the cake-namers wanted to convey that this cake was unusual, special, and not just another coconut cake like your great aunt makes.
I’m betting that “Japanese” was their way of saying “New!” “Unusual!” “Notice me!” and “I know something you don’t know!”
So, what exactly is this mysteriously-named cake? It’s a layer cake, with two distinctive aspects. First, the layers are divided into plain and fancy. You make a basic yellow cake with butter, sugar, flour, and eggs, and divide the batter in half. Two layers are baked as a standard vanilla cake. The other half of the batter gets a boost in the form of cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, which give it a handsome rich color, and a handful each of chopped raisins and chopped pecans. These two layers are baked as well, and then alternated in the finished cake. The nuts can be walnuts, and the layers can be two, or three, but there has to be an alternation of color/flavor.
The sides of this cake are left unfrosted, so the alternating color and flavor is easily visible. This has become popular in the last several years, but it isn’t really new—it’s a style that comes and goes in this country, where fully iced layer cakes are standard. European style tortes feature this show-off option, and it’s typical of German chocolate cakes and dobos torte, the Hungarian extravaganza which inspired the New Orleans signature doberge cakes.
The icing is a sweet, almost translucent confection in which coconut juice, water, sugar, and flour or cornstarch are cooked into a thick, luscious filling, which fills the contrasting layers and fancies up the top. Its sweetness is moderated beautifully with the brightness of citrus zest, lemon or orange or both, and the juice of same. Japanese Fruitcake is one fancy, complicated, big-deal cake, the kind that may cause you to go out and buy a cake-stand, or borrow one, just so you can show off your handiwork in old-school style.
The earliest reference I’ve found for this very particular cake appears on The Food History Timeline in a display ad in the Los Angeles Times, touting Globe A1 Flour in 1926. This could mean the cake has roots in Los Angeles, or that the flour company promoting their product did. We don’t know. The next known reference, in 1941, is very Southern, in Southern Cooking by Mrs. Henrietta Dull, an Atlanta, Georgia-based cookbook which is a major source of early-to-mid-20th century Southern cooking. Bill Neal includes the cake in his wonderful book, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1990. He writes:
Like Lane Cake and Lady Baltimore, Japanese Fruitcake is one of the Edwardian dessert extravaganzas with its rich fruit and nut fillings, hidden under mounds of fluffy white icing.”
Neal’s recipe adds a glamorous flourish to the standard version, by finishing the cake with an all-over frosting of either Fluffy Icing (the marshmallowy boiled icing or Italian meringue), or sweetened whipped cream.
Japanese Fruitcake has one other similarity to the standard Southern fruitcake with its abundance of nuts, spices, and dried and glaceed fruits. It is among the holiday cakes and desserts mentioned often with love and nostalgia in modern cookbooks. I’ve also seen references to this cake as a beloved and essential presence on the holiday table in the Mountain South.
It’s a lovely, fancy, and delightful showboat of a cake, worthy of a special occasion. Given its multiplicity of ingredients and many steps, it’s a good one to consider making with a friend. Get together for a baking session, and then invite your people over for a holiday dessert party. Or enjoy it as the culmination of a seasonal feast, knowing that you will have plenty to serve and plenty to send home with guests, or share with the mail carrier, the neighbors, or your book club. Your investment of time will be rewarded, and you may decide to make this oddly-named cake part of your annual holiday traditions.
Japanese Fruitcake[Download the printable version here.]
For the Cake
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped raisins or whole currants
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
To make the cake, heat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter and flour four 8-or 9-inch round cake pans. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in one medium bowl. In another, combine the raisins, pecans, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. Use a big spoon to stir the flour mixture well, and then to mix the raisins, nuts, and spices together.
In a large bowl, combine the butter and the sugar, and beat with a mixer at high speed to combine them well. Add the eggs one at a time, beating to make a smooth, fluffy mixture. Stir the vanilla into the milk. Add about half the flour mixture, and then half the milk, beating at low speed after each addition only to mix everything together well. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk.
Divide half the batter between 2 of the pans, and set them aside. Stir the raisins, nuts, and spices into the remaining batter. Divide this spiced batter between the 2 remaining pans, and set all 4 cake pans in the oven.
Bake at 350°F for 20 to 25 minutes, until the layers are golden brown, pulling away from the sides of the pans, and spring back when touched lightly in the center. Cool the layers on a wire rack or a folded kitchen towel for 10 minutes, and then turn them out onto the wire racks or onto plates to cool completely, top side up.
While the cake is baking, make the filling. In a heavy medium saucepan, bring the 1 cup of water to a boil over medium heat. Stir in the sugar, lemon juice and zest, and coconut, and bring to a boil. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle boil, and cook for 7 minutes, stirring now and then. Mix the cornstarch into the cold water, stir well, and then add the mixture to the pan, mixing to dissolve it into the filling. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring often, until the filling is thickened and clear. Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl, and cool to room temperature, stirring now and then.
For the Filling
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
About 3 ½ cups freshly grated coconut, or sweetened, shredded coconut
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup cold water
To complete the cake, place a plain, unspiced layer, top side down, on a cake stand or serving plate, and poke little holes all over it so that some of the filling will penetrate the cake. Spread about one fourth of the cooled filling over the layer all the way to the edges. Place a spiced layer over the filling, poke holes all over, and spread with another quarter of the filling. Repeat with the remaining layers and filling, placing the final spiced layer top side up and pouring all the remaining filling over the layer so that a little cascades down the sides of the cake. Let stand for several hours to firm up, and cover and chill overnight. If possible, remove the cake from the refrigerator an hour or so in advance of serving time, to return to room temperature.
From Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations. Chronicle Books 2007. Copyright Nancie McDermott. All rights reserved.