Everyone deserves a second chance—even fruitcake. Back in the eighties, Johnny Carson called it "the worst gift" imaginable. "There’s only one in the world," he said, "and people keep sending it to each other." Twenty years later, fruitcake still gets a bad rap.
But anyone who knows Eli Zabar’s Round Holiday Fruitcake—made with perfectly tender dried apricots, dates, cherries, walnuts, pecans, and almonds—will quickly realize how wrong they’ve been.
The key to any successful fruitcake, as with so many things in life, is quality ingredients. And anyone familiar with Eli Zabar, the legendary Manhattan epicurean-cum-restaurateur-cum-retailer, would expect nothing less. (Eli’s, his 20,000-square-foot gourmet emporium, is one of the best on the Upper East Side, and E.A.T., his Madison Avenue restaurant, remains a favorite among discerning New Yorkers.)
To make the cake even more terrific, I top it off with the glorious hard sauce I discovered in New Orleans more than a decade ago. I’ve spent years perfecting the recipe, in which velvety smooth cream plays against the sweet, tangy taste of sugar, Armagnac, and vanilla bean.
Critical, too, is that you serve both warm, which miraculously unlocks the aromatic flavors. (I warm the cake in the oven at 225 degrees for 30 minutes and stir the sauce over low heat.)
Those who still need convincing should consider culinary history. In the 18th century, Europeans made fruitcakes to celebrate the annual nut harvest; many believed they’d bring good luck for the following season. Queen Victoria was of the opinion that saving a fruitcake—versus immediately indulging in it—was a commendable act of self-restraint. Around the same time, a marzipan-coated version was often placed at the top of a wedding cake to wish the newlyweds fruitfulness and joy. Now are you convinced?
Eli Zabar’s Round Holiday Fruitcake ($75), available at elizabar.com
This dessert, I believe, deserves a classic presentation. Nelson & Nelson Antiques in New York is, in my opinion, the finest purveyor of sterling-silver sets in Manhattan. 445 Park Ave.; 212-980-5191
In Good Spirits
A fine Armagnac makes a dramatic difference. My favorite is the 1967 Founder’s Reserve—a little pricey but ever so delicious. $155; sherry-lehmann.com
The Hard Sauce
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons cold water
1 vanilla bean, slit lengthwise, seeds scraped
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup Armagnac
In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil.
Stir in the cornstarch mixture and the vanilla bean and seeds and return to a boil, stirring constantly.
Reduce the heat and stir for 30 seconds. Stir in the sugar and Armagnac.
Remove the vanilla bean and let the sauce cool to room temperature.