Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Some assembly required.

Fruit Cocktail Cake. © Ryan Schierling

This is not a fruitcake. At least, not in the traditional sense. If anything, I would call it more of a dinner-appropriate cousin of coffee cake. I might even call it a "bachelor cake" if there weren't so many single men these days with knock-out kitchen skills. It really is that easy.

The 1940s gave birth to the tinned tidbits of fruit we now think of as fruit cocktail. A sort of canned version of fruit salad, it seems to have somehow transformed from fancy hotel luncheon course to ubiquitous school lunch fare over the years. At some point along the line there was established an industry standard of particular percentages represented by peaches, pears, pineapple and grapes. To the chagrin of children young and old, there are usually but a scant few maraschino cherry halves to be found – though they are still the crown jewels of the can.

Where did fruit cocktail cake originate? If you have any information as to the the original source, please do tell! This is a recipe that seems to come in roughly three variations, similar, but differentiated primarily by scale of recipe and type of topping or frosting. I have yet to find a point of origin. It is a widely enough known dessert that, if I were to hazard an educated guess, it seems like the type of recipe one might have found on a can of fruit cocktail at some point along the line. My family made it with some frequency in the 1970s and early '80s via my Grandma Munroe who has this same handwritten recipe in her box under the name Fruit Cocktail Pudding. Grandma only notes that it came courtesy of her cousin Muriel sometime during the 1960s – that's about as far back as anyone can figure and it is still a mystery as to where Muriel acquired it.

So, why this cake, this week? One, because it's springtime and it just seems like an appropriate dessert for these not-too-hot/not-too-cold days between Spring and Summer. Two, because it's my brother's birthday this week and I can't be there to make a giant fuss over it with him. You know, the kind of "fuss" where you feign a big deal about his age and and invite all his friends over for some great food and a few bites of over-the-top cake that nobody really has room for but feels obligated to eat anyway? Yeah, that kind.

But, I can't be there this year, and I couldn't quite think how to successfully send a cake by mail. So, I did the next best thing; I sent him everything he needs to make his own.

Little hiccup, though… my brother isn't much of a cook. Not that he "can't" cook, mind you, it's just that he doesn't do much of it due to the tug of more powerful interests and technical distractions. If I was going to send him a birthday cake with some assembly required, it had better be 1) unbelievably easy and 2) meaningful in some tangible way. In our case, fruit cocktail cake succeeds at both.

Easy. It boasts a simple pantry-ready ingredient list, quick assembly, and the muffin method – a technique which entails no more than a minimalist  "stir with a spatula until all combined." There is no greasing the pan, no draining the fruit and no waiting for the cake to cool completely before – oh, heaven forbid – frosting. The gift box currently in route to my dear sibling contains four containers: one with a the dry ingredient mix, one with the topping mix, and a 15 oz. can of fruit cocktail. The fourth container is a proper 2 quart glass casserole dish to bake it in. The only items he'll have to procure are a single solitary chicken egg and a 8 oz. carton of whipping cream. (Sorry, bro, you're on your own with the perishables.) I thought for a moment about risking the inclusion of aerosol-cream-in-a-can but "too sweet," "refrigeration required," and "probably illegal according to the USPS" stopped me short.

Meaningful. This is one of two desserts our dad baked pretty regularly when we were kids. Mom did most of the day-to-day cooking, but Dad was pretty handy in the kitchen when he wanted to be and the fact that he was usually the one to bake this dessert pretty much solidified it as "his" in our young minds. In addition to the fast assembly, it is quick to the table when out of the oven, thus providing a pleasing kind of instant gratification to back up the delicious aroma. Also, I'm going to bet my brother hasn't eaten this in at least a decade and I'm all too happy to provide this edible little walk down memory lane.

So, there it is… off today in the mail is a box of ingredients that will hopefully conjure some happy recollections of those childhood days when Dad threw together a sweet, warm and comforting little cake as a random weeknight treat. Happy birthday, little brother. I hope your day brings with it all kinds of delicious and wonderful memories, both new ones to be made and old ones to be savored!

Fruit Cocktail Cake (as per my hand-scribed vintage 1970's recipe card)

Sift together:
1 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
Dash of salt [I use 2 pinches of kosher salt.]

1 egg, slightly beaten [Just drop it on top of the dry ingredients and slash it a few times.]
1 can (2 cups) fruit cocktail [Do not drain! I use a 15 oz. can of regular fruit cocktail – fruit juice sweetened.] *

Mix together. [In a mixing bowl, fold and stir together gently with a spatula until all the ingredients are just wet and incorporated.] Pour into ungreased 8x8 square pan. [We have always used a glass baking dish.] Cover with topping.  [It will look like a lot, but a good half of the layer will be absorbed into the cake as it rises. The remainder will create a bit of a crumb topping.]

1 cup brown sugar [One cup "packed" is an ungodly amount. I actually use 1/2-2/3 cup packed and then fluffed it up with a fork.]
1/2 cup chopped nuts [My vote is for pecans, but us what you have or prefer.]

Bake in 300º F oven for 45 minutes.

Serve warm, topped with generous dollop of freshly whipped cream. [Whipping up eight ounces of heavy cream with just a teaspoon or so of sugar is well worth the three minutes it takes. Plus, this will give you something to do while you're waiting for the cake to cool just a bit!]

Serves 4-6

* Note: If you have any maraschino cherries around, you might want to add a few extra halves to the batter, the canned fruit cocktail really skimps on those, and the "added cherry" varieties usually have cherry "flavored" syrup, too, which could make your cake pink. Your inner child, or actual children, will thank you – hopefully without their mouths full.


  1. I grew up knowing that as dump cake, except instead of the fancy from-scratch stuff, we used a yellow cake mix. Yours looks yummy!

  2. Melanie, referring to this as "fancy from-scratch" made me laugh! It's almost easier than opening a cake mix box. :)

    I totally count the cake mix way (AKA Dump Cake) as a variation. There is another variation out there with about twice the batter to the one can of fruit cocktail, and another which has a cooked frosting and may involve coconut. I think I'll stick with this version – but if I have some flake coconut laying around one of these days, some of it might accidentally end up in this cake.


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