- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 22, 2012

Whether it’s a deep-seated hatred, cold-hearted humor or blind affection, no other food prompts as visceral a reaction as fruitcake.

It’s the gift that keeps getting re-gifted, a dish given wide berth at holiday dinner parties. It is the Brussels sprouts of the dessert world.

For some though, it’s a luxurious treat, one with a heady aroma and dense filling. The task of baking this marginally beloved cake falls to the monks of Holy Cross Abbey.

On a recent day in late November, the storeroom of the monastery’s bakery is stacked wall to wall and nearly floor to ceiling with thousands of boxed fruitcakes, proof that the cakes have a loyal following. Last year, the abbey sold about 10,000 cakes.

“Most people hate it because someone told them they hate it,” said Ernie Polanskas, the monastery’s head fruitcake baker. “The bad ones are the inexpensive ones at the grocery that are shaped like a brick and are mostly made of cake that dries out.”

Nestled in the rolling hills of Berryville, Va., the 62-year-old monastery occupies a cluster of unassuming buildings on an old farm called Cold Springs.

About 30 men live and work on the property and a retreat house set on its edge has a rotating number of visitors looking to get away from everyday life.

Mr. Polanskas has been with the abbey for 12 years, but he is not a monk.

He jokingly recalls how he was “recruited” with the offer of running the abbey’s gift store. When he arrived, he was told that the monks also needed someone to head the bakery.

The monks at Holy Cross Abbey have spent decades perfecting a recipe — one based on Betty Crocker’s directions — which puts them on a short list of reputable fruitcake bakers on the East Coast.

“The fruit and nuts are the things that keep the cake moist,” Mr. Polanskas explained. “You can make it at any time. The longer it sits, the better it is.”

A customer once called to tell the monks she had found an unopened cake in its tin, beneath the bed of a recently deceased relative.

It was 13 years old, Mr. Polanskas said, but only “a little dry.”

A durable product that can handle a flexible schedule is just what the monks were looking for when they realized baking bread, which was their previous way to make a living, was too much trouble.

The monks had to worry about the bread not being fresh or delivered on time, which impacted sales. But they had an industrial-sized oven and the monks turned to a tried-and-true product they’d been baking for special occasions — fruitcake.

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