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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Light Snow
The Daily
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Fringe Foods: The raisin for the season
Fruitcake and its close European relatives
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Clockwise from top: panettone, fruitcake, stollen, and makowiec.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

In this, the most wonderful time of the year, let us talk about the spirit of the holidays. It is the central ideal of early winter, the warmth that lends blush to cheeks, the gust that shapes drifts of driven snow, the twinkle in both evergreen trees and children's eyes.

I speak of marketing.

Specifically, I would like to discuss with you the marketing not of the holiday season, but of one of the scourges of late December: fruitcake. Please don't leave.

We've all heard our fill of fruitcake, but how many have eaten their fill? How many let fruitcake's bad reputation, and not its amalgamation of fruit, nut and batter, satiate whatever craving they might feel? Is fruitcake not deserving of the same spirit of charity that intoxicates the kindly masses this time of year?

No. Not really. But I'll get to that later.

Knowing there are almost as many twists on the candied-fruit-and-nut baked good as there are winter holidays, I braved the snows to hunt down a representative sample.

There is a doppelgänger out there, one that is giving fruitcake the business big-time. It is called panettone, and is the beneficiary of the best of marketing campaigns. You see, panettone is also bread with candied fruit and raisins, and is blessed with that selfsame preternatural shelf life.

Unlike fruitcake, however, panettone can be seen cradled in the loving hands of food gods like Mario Batali and Giada De Laurentiis. It is sold in lovely boxes at Whole Foods, but -- tellingly -- is also available at Big Lots and Wal-Mart. Maybe panettone isn't as high-toned after all. Regardless, I went the posh route with the Whole Foods product ($4.99).

Fruitcake, on the other hand, is stacked like cordwood at Copps grocery store, where I found mine ($5.99). Really, though, if you can't find fruitcake, you're just not trying.

But then there are also traditional holiday baked goods that escape the pressures of marketing and social cachet. One such lucky loaf is stollen, a German take on fruitcake whose appearance is meant to resemble a swaddled baby Jesus. Stollen keeps the chopped nuts that panettone discards, but adds a thin sugar icing on the surface. My small loaf was baked with care at La Brioche ($5.75), but Madeleine's will do the job if you're in their part of town.

Also lurking in the background of the fruit-and-cake family picture is a Polish treat called makowiec. Rolled strudel-style, makowiec is filled with honey, raisins, walnuts and the main attraction, poppy seeds. Other additional stuffings could include candied citrus peel and almonds, but Alex Polish American Deli keeps it simple ($8.50).

I tackled the cheerleader of the group, panettone, first. My nose, and then my palate, was met immediately by the bitterness of the candied orange peel. Leave it to the Italians to add a little bit of agony to their desserts. Ooh, how moody!

Honestly, the lack of a nut in this bread is a significant downfall. Panettone is recommended toasted, with butter, but I'd have settled for the buttery flavor of roasted hazelnuts. The best part was the raisins; panettone takes the bronze.

Next up was stollen. What doesn't benefit from a thin layer of icing? The nuts perched atop provided the exact fullness of flavor that was missing from the panettone, and the overall mouthfeel was much lighter than expected. The citrus peel was much less bitter here; raisins were once again appreciated. There is no question that this is a sweet treat. Silver medal, but awfully close.

Polish food is out of my wheelhouse, but I was quite pleased with my loaf of makowiec. That iconic poppy seed taste is all-present, despite the fact that poppy seeds do not appear in the list of ingredients on the package (trust me, they're there). Golden raisins brighten what would be a dense profile, and I'm still not complaining about icing. This is definitely a bread that I could look forward to every year. We have a winner!

And I guess by now you've figured out where that fruitcake from Copps fits in. I should admit that I passed on a really tasty-looking loaf at Metcalfe's Sentry, solely to please you readers who want me to subject myself to the weirdest possible version. There's also strong evidence that the Trappists (they of the wonderful beers) concoct one killer fruitcake, but they're $40 and mail-order. Yeesh.

So I went with the garish brick of indeterminate age. The first observation is that it doesn't smell very good. The next is that it doesn't taste very good either. To be honest, I wasn't entirely convinced it was food until I found a raisin. This assured me that at least I wasn't eating some metamorphic rock chipped off a meteorite. I'm still not finishing the damn thing.

You therefore have my permission to let fruitcake's bad marketing sway you, but do not be fooled by the lure of panettone's Italianosity! Wonderful delectables of more local (and more recent) origin can be found for the same price, and will make you much less prone to preservative affective disorder. Happy holidays from the fringe!

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