- 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.

Because of the cake’s excellent shelf life, monks get to work on the Christmas cakes in January and February and bake right through September. By the first week in December, the storeroom will be empty, the cakes on their way to mailboxes across the country and as far away as Germany, Russia and China.

Popular around the world, fruitcake likely has far-reaching influences, said Paul Freedman, a Yale University history professor who specializes in the history of cuisine.

A fruitcake fan himself — in moderation — Mr. Freedman said the cake likely drew inspiration from candied fruits and nuts in Middle Eastern cuisine and could have been “very influential in medieval Europe.”

The United Kingdom, Mr. Freedman said, “has all of these sweet Christmas things like plum pudding, or sort of fruit, cake or custard.

“The fruitcake would have been an English adaptation,” Mr. Freedman said. “While it’s not absolutely medieval, it’s closer to some kind of 15th or 16th century” cake.

Another relative could be the panforte, an Italian dessert sold in Vienna that’s thick, flat and disc-shaped.

“It’s more like a dense confection of dried fruits and nuts,” he said.

American palates often reject fruitcakes because dried fruits have gone out of style, Mr. Freedman explained.

“It’s ruined here. It’s become a joke because of cheap imitations,” Mr. Freedman said. “It’s also has become a joke because it’s not our taste now. It was more our taste 50 years ago.”

For Nancy Masters, the Inyo County, Calif., library director, fruitcake is something to have fun with, but certainly not serve as the butt of a joke.

Ms. Masters also serves as the president of the Independence Civic Club, which makes her in charge of the small town’s annual Fruitcake Festival.

Independence, Calif., is about eight hours southeast of San Francisco, with a population of 500 to 600 people, and this is the eighth year for the festival, she said.

“We have to find things to do,” Ms. Masters said with a laugh. “It’s just sort of a crazy, chaotic party, and that’s the way we want it.”

The festival got its start after Ms. Masters and several of her friends were joking about a way to celebrate the much maligned food. As luck would have it, the friends were discussing the option while volunteering at an election site, where a reporter overheard the conversation and put it in the paper.

Every year the festival has a different theme. One time it was an Egyptian theme, while last year embraced “Peace, Love, and Fruitcake.” This December, the celebration is “Fiesta de Fruitcake.”

The festival includes a number of contests for the fruitcake, such as “most solids” baked into the cake, farthest traveled and best decorated.

“One lady made fruitcake balls, which was a really interesting idea,” Ms. Masters said. “We always try to do some value-added fruitcake, like fruitcake tempura … or fruitcake bread pudding.”

And each year Ms. Masters brings out a cake that she’s had preserved for eight years to get people to taste.

Packed in a metal canister used in bomb shelters, then placed in a glass container, the fruitcake gets a new coat of powdered sugar and an injection of brandy.

“We do take precautions,” she said with a laugh.

Ms. Masters said she too is a fruitcake fan. She likes the various fruits and nuts and the different styles the cake can be baked.

For the festival, however, “it’s not what tastes the best.”

In Berryville, the goal is a tasty cake.

It takes about 2 1/2 hours to bake the abbey’s fruitcake. The process starts at 3 a.m., when Mr. Polanskas hits his alarm and heads from his home in Winchester to the bakery at the back of the abbey’s property.

He mixes the cake batter for that day and is joined over the course of the morning by monks who combine the batter with fruit.

Along with the cake batter, the monks mix in raisins, nuts, cherries, pineapple pieces, lemons and oranges, as well as vanilla and a range of spices like cumin and nutmeg.

The bakery has electric mixers, but they are nearly 6-feet tall. A small forklift is used to transport the mixing bowls, which weigh up to 200 pounds each when they are full.

“I’ll tell you, I like it with vanilla ice cream,” said Brother Efrain, 60, who moved from a Rhode Island monastery seven years ago to live at Holy Cross.

Sitting in the now-quiet bakery, helping to wrap containers of the whipped honey the monks also make, Brother Efrain said baking gives the men time to talk, albeit quietly, and socialize with some of the people who have come to the monastery for a weekend away.

Once his shift is over, however, “I take a shower. I don’t want to smell like that.”

But the work could be worse, he said with a smile, remembering another abbey he’d heard about in Missouri.

“They made cinderblocks.”