The tale of the century-old fruitcake at the Biltmore Estate
Nothing lasts forever, but historians at the Asheville, North Carolina-based Biltmore Estate have found something that comes close.
The museum services team at the historic 8,000-acre estate, the site of the largest privately owned home in the U.S., has among their artifacts a chunk of fruitcake from the wedding of Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil on April 29, 1924. Vanderbilt was the daughter of Edith and George Vanderbilt, the first occupants of the opulent home.
Lori M. Garst, an associate curator in the museum services department, said the cake was created for the wedding by Rauscher’s, a DC-based caterer to the well-heeled. Fruitcake was not an unusual choice for the groom's cake at the time, she added.
"It was a common tradition for the wedding cake to be offered as keepsakes to the guests," she said. "The idea behind that is the belief that if an unmarried woman slept with a piece of groom's cake under their pillow, they'd dream of their future husband."
This particular piece was discovered in a gift box in a trunk inherited by a North Carolina man whose aunt was employed as a Biltmore cook at the time of the famous marriage. The cake, rendered hard as rock and dark by the hands of time, bore no resemblance to anything sweet.
Museum staff dispatched to gather the box, engraved with "Biltmore Estate" and Cecil and Vanderbilt's initials, quickly realized the unidentified foodstuff was wedding cake. It's now kept in a freezer for preservation.
"I don't know if this proves the staying power of fruitcake because it certainly isn't edible," Garst said. "It's more about the box than the contents. It's held its shape, how about that?"
Not only do we know what sort of cake Cornelia Vanderbilt commissioned for her future husband, we also know what sweets her parents, George and Edith Vanderbilt, preferred to eat on special occasions, particularly the holidays.
Those details are well-preserved in an archival menu book from 1904, when Biltmore Estate cooks dutifully chronicled what appeared on the Vanderbilts' Christmas table that year.
"Christmas during the Gilded Age was a big event full of pomp and circumstance," Garst said. "It was a very elaborate affair with multiple courses."
Dinner began with consomme royale, a clear chicken broth thickened with tapioca and served with a garnish of bouillon, egg and herbs poached in buttered molds. A fish course of broiled mackerel with cucumber salad followed. The main course was a favorite of the Vanderbilts: roasted turkey, this time served with cranberries, potatoes, peas and celery. A salad of Virginia ham and spinach came next.
Dessert that Christmas was not fruitcake, but rather its more moist, brandy-spiked distant cousin, plum pudding. That was followed by cake and ice cream, a favorite treat of Edith Vanderbilt.
This historic recipe for plum pudding was pulled from a book in the estate's collection, "The Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery," and closely represents what the Vanderbilts would have eaten. For a more updated holiday recipe, see the cake method that follows.
Historic Biltmore Estate Plum Pudding
Beat up 12 eggs and mix them with 1½ pints of cream and ¾ pounds each of sifted breadcrumbs and flour. When they are well beaten together, mix in 1½ pounds each of very finely chopped suet, sugar, stoned and chopped raisins and well washed and dried currants, and 3 ounces of candied citron and the same quantity of orange peel, both citron and orange peel cut small.
Grate in nutmeg and a half and mix in well 6 tablespoons full each of brandy and white wine. Tie the pudding tight in a greased cloth, plunge it into boiling water and keep it constantly boiling for nine hours.
Pumpkin Pecan Layer Cake
This updated interpretation of a classic holiday cake takes inspiration from the Vanderbilts. Cake was one of Edith Vanderbilt’s favorite desserts.
Serves 8-10 people
For the cake:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1¾ teaspoons ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1½ cups sugar
- 1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
- 1 cup canola oil
- 4 large eggs
- 1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
For the caramel pecan filling:
- 2 cups sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 4 cups toasted pecans
For the cream cheese vanilla bean frosting:
- 2 pounds cream cheese
- 12 ounces butter
- 6 cups confectioner’s sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 vanilla bean
Cake: Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter two 8-inch-diameter cake pans with 1½-inch-high sides. Line bottom of pans with parchment paper; dust pans with flour.
Sift 3 cups flour and next 7 ingredients into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat both sugars and oil in large bowl until combined (mixture will look grainy). Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until well blended after each addition.
Add pumpkin and vanilla and beat until well blended. Add flour mixture; beat just until incorporated. Divide batter between prepared pans and smooth tops of batter. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool cakes completely in pans on rack.
Run knife around cakes to loosen. Invert cakes onto racks; remove parchment paper. Turn cakes over, rounded side up. Using serrated knife, trim rounded tops of cakes to level. Cut each layer in half. Fill with caramel pecan filling and top with cream cheese vanilla bean frosting.
Filling: Stir sugar and water in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with a wet pastry brush until caramel is deep amber, 12–15 minutes. Add honey; return to a boil, stirring often, about 1 minute longer. Add butter; stir until blended. Add cream (mixture will bubble vigorously); whisk until smooth. Add pecans. Let set until cool enough to spread. Apply mixture to each layer.
Frosting: Soften cream cheese and butter and mix together until smooth. Add sugar, vanilla and vanilla bean seeds. Beat until smooth. Spread over top and sides of cake.
Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.
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