What They Don’t Teach in Foodwriting 101 (and Finally, a Fruitcake to Love)

A Fruitcake to Love 

It sounds like a dream job, doesn’t it? Jetting off to exotic places, being plied with endless food and drink on someone else’s dime, being able to say to yourself you know, I really shouldn’t have that third helping of _____ (insert name of some fat- or sugar-laden local specialty), but what the heck, it’s my job! Sure you have to put some words down on paper about the whole thing when it’s over, but that’s a small price to pay for a job that never actually feels like work while you’re doing it, right?

Um, well, sometimes. Maybe most of the time. But as I discovered last week, there are also times when all that flies out the window and the job you’re stuck with resembles a paid vacation less than it does some milder forms of torture.

I’ll explain. As you know I do occasional writing for the fine British magazine Food and Travel, and last week I accepted an assignment that took me down to southern Spain, poking around the lovely, garden-fringed city of Murcia and criss-crossing some of the region’s fertile backroads. All was going swimmingly – the food was copious and fantastic, the landscape beautiful, the producers friendly and brimming with printable quotes. It was quite exhausting, as it always is – there is, after all, so much ground to cover and so much to eat and only a few days in which to do it – but it was certainly nothing I couldn’t handle.

But then the worst thing that could happen, did. I got sick.

I know, I know, there are actually many things much worse than that, among them plane crashes, bombs exploding, kidnappings, etc., but understand that those all would have the advantage of bringing the assignment to an end. Getting sick, however, did not. It just made the whole thing infinitely harder.

It happened at the end of my second day there. We had spent the afternoon eating tapas – from about a dozen different places – before diving back in and finishing off the night with a ten-course meal at one of Murcia’s best restaurants. I went home stuffed to the gills but otherwise feeling fine, and promptly went to bed. About four o’clock in the morning, though, I woke up in a haze, dazed and disoriented but knowing something was terribly wrong; I barely made it to the bathroom before my body began its eviction process of something it didn’t want in there. From there I spent the rest of the night huddled next to the toilet in agony – alternating between cold sweats, hot sweats, dizziness and nausea, and cursing my foodhardiness at ever agreeing to sacrifice the sanctity of my stomach for something as inconsequential as professional gain.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had food poisoning – I certainly hadn’t before last week – but after your body finally manages to get rid of whatever little beastie thought your digestive tract looked like a fine new place of residence, there is one thing, and one thing only, that you feel you will never be able do again. That of course is eat.

But that wasn’t an option. We had another three whole days of non-stop eating on the itinerary, and missing even part of it would seriously compromise the article. I had no choice – I simply had to soldier on. At our first engagement the next morning – a cheese factory – I quickly came to regret that decision, when, after showing us their facilities they passed around a plate of samples for us to try. Not wanting to be rude, I took a tiny nibble; moments later, in mid-conversation with the firm’s director on the benefits of small-batch production, I had to excuse myself in a hurry to find a place to regurgitate it. Believe me, I have never been so embarrassed in my life.

I did get progressively better over the next few days – my fever and nausea subsided and I was able to actually ingest things without fearing they would find their way up again a few minutes later, but my stomach was still not operating at anywhere near full capacity. It remained so sensitive, in fact, that I was only able to force down a few tentative bites at most of our remaining meals, something that distressed me as much as it did the generous restaurateurs who laid on course after course of their very best dishes for me to try, only to see them sent back to the kitchen uneaten. The irony, of course, wasn’t lost on me – here I was, being served exactly the kind of food I lie awake at night dreaming about, as much as I wanted and all of it free – and I was physically incapable of eating it. Life, you are sometimes very cruel.

But it all worked out in the end – I got enough for the article, and I even snagged a few fantastic new recipes in the bargain. I can’t say I left a very convincing impression as a food journalist (“Journalist? You mean that girl who puked all over our factory?”) but at least I can now sound convincing when I tell people that professional food writing is not all champagne and roses (or champagne and caviar, as the case may be).  As for the question I know you’re dying to ask – which restaurant was it? – I’m afraid I simply can’t say. No really, I can’t; we ate at so many that day that even attempting to point a finger would be pure speculation, something none of them deserve. I can recommend a visit to Murcia without reservation, however, which is a beautiful city, though I would advise a slightly less hectic schedule than I had. And if you’re looking for some tips on where to eat there, I think the February issue of Food and Travel should have just what you need. 🙂


But oh, what is up with that fruitcake? Here I’ve enticed you with that photo and haven’t said a word about it. Ah, well you see I just couldn’t abandon you before Christmas without a recipe, or more precisely without this recipe. I’ve been dumping a lot of unfair abuse on fruitcake lately (even going so far as to compare it to subdividing bacteria, and isn’t that a funny analogy now in light of the story I’ve just told!), but now I’m standing here with foot planted firmly in mouth because I have found the fruitcake that all other fruitcakes aspire to be. No really, this is THE ONE, the fruitcake of my dreams. The secret, I’ll have you know, is something I’ll bet you’ve probably never seen in a fruitcake before. You see those little jet-black bits poking out here and there among the pistachios and apricots and other usual suspects? Those are olives, my friends, olives, and they are what take this cake from good to sublime.

I mean, olives in sweet things are nothing new around here, but still I never would have thought of adding them to fruitcake. Thankfully, though, there are people around like Elizabeth Falkner (of Citizen Cake fame) who have a bit more imagination than me, as apparently this was exactly what fruitcake was missing all along. Of course, when you look at the list of ingredients it makes perfect sense; after all, dates, figs, oranges, pistachios and walnuts are a near-perfect assembly of Mediterranean flavors, and even without the olives this cake would be pretty darn good. With the olives, however, it’s in another class entirely – all I can say is, if you think you’re a fruitcake hater, give it a shot. You may, like me, suddenly find yourself wondering how on earth you managed to have any merry Christmases without it.

And speaking of Christmas, since you probably won’t see me again around here until it’s long gone (as we’re leaving for snow-covered Germany tomorrow where – gasp! – we won’t have any internet access for two whole weeks), let me take this opportunity to extend a heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you, dear readers. Thank you for sticking it out with me for yet another year, for always leaving such witty, insightful and heart-warming comments, and most of all, for giving me a reason to hit ‘publish’ every week. I honestly couldn’t do this without you. May you have the most joyous and peaceful of holidays, surrounded by good food, good cheer, and plenty of people you love. And I’ll see you right back here in 2008!

A Fruitcake to Love

This cake was very good as written, but I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t find a few things to improve. Most importantly, I doubled the olives, because let’s face it, three tablespoons divided between two cakes is a leetle skimpy, don’t you think? I also added a few chopped dried apricots for tartness (though dried sour cherries would be nice too), I increased the liquid to make it slightly moister and I added an additional egg for stability. Oh, and even with the increased moisture and extra egg you’ll need to wait until the cake is completely cool – preferably chilled – before even attempting to slice it, as otherwise you’ll end up with beautiful mosaic-patterened chunks instead of the slices I’m sure you’d much rather be serving. Oh, and Elizabeth suggests pairing this with cheese, which I think is a fine idea, though rest assured it’s perfectly edible on its own too.
Yield: two 8-inch loaf cakes
Source: adapted from Elizabeth Falkner, Bon Appetit, December 2007 

1 1/4 cups (250g) chopped pitted Medjool dates
3/4 cup (125g) chopped candied orange peel
1/3 cup (50g) chopped dried Mission figs
1/2 cup (75g) chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup (125ml) brandy (alternatively, you can use half Nocello (walnut liqueur) or Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur) and half water)
20 oil-cured black olives, pitted, chopped (about 6 tablespoons)

1 3/4 cups (250g) all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup (125ml) plain whole-milk yogurt
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks/175g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups (200g) coarsely chopped walnuts
3/4 cup (100g) shelled unsalted natural pistachios

Position a rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F/175°C. Butter two 8 1/2×4 1/2-inch (21×11-cm) metal loaf pans and dust with flour. Mix the first five ingredients in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring after each, until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the fruit (alternatively, heat mixture in a small saucepan just until simmering, then cover and steep until absorbed). Stir in the olives and set aside to cool completely. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon into another medium bowl.

Whisk yogurt and oil in a small bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in large bowl until blended. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with yogurt mixture in 2 additions, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in walnuts, pistachios, and dried-fruit mixture. Divide batter between prepared pans. Smooth tops.

Bake cakes until tester inserted into centers comes out clean and cakes begin to pull away from sides of pans, about 50 minutes. Cool them in the pans at least 30 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto racks, and cool completely before slicing. These keep in the fridge at least a week.


35 thoughts on “What They Don’t Teach in Foodwriting 101 (and Finally, a Fruitcake to Love)

  1. Agh, so sorry to hear you got sick. That happened to me on my first trip to Italy…there I was, finally in the world of fresh mozzarella and pizza pies bigger than the moon, and I couldn’t eat a single bite! I was miserable. Glad you are feeling better!

  2. Oh dear Melissa, what a story! When M and I went to Barcelona a couple years ago I spend a night curled up to the toilet too – but that was from over-eating, not because I caught anything – I think. Maybe my story would sound less gluttinous if I said I got sick?;) Can’t wait to see the article, but will probably giggle a little at every mentioning of food – tee-hee!Merry Christmas to you – looking forward to continue reading your blog in 2009!

  3. I want to say that this post made me laugh hysterically but that would seem as if I’m laughing at your misfortune. I am not. I am just so engaged by your writing and the experience and I am so glad you made it through that. I have this feeling the article is still, after all that, brilliant 🙂

  4. Oh my you poor poor thing. I know the pain of food poisoning and I am so utterly impressed that you were able to put on a brave face. I swear it took me a week to recover. And to suffer through that alone in your hotel room too? So awful.The fruitcake looks like a dream though. I love the idea of putting olives in there!

  5. Oh, I sympathize. Last year I ate something in the Guangdong airport and by the time I got to Hanoi was so sick I barely made it to a bathroom, where I not only thought I was dying but came close to wanting to. And like you, my stomach was so sensitive that for the rest of the week I could eat only rice — if I even looked at anything more challenging, my stomach heaved in protest. And I love Vietnamese food. I was annoyed.

  6. Ugh. Food poisoning is the worst. You always feel like you’re going to die. I won’t share any stories, but glad you’re better. Have a good trip to Germany and eat a lot of that extraordinary grainy bread for me! xo

  7. Yes…the dreaded food poisoning. The worst kind that makes you swear you will never eat another bite. And to think that you had to go to a cheese factory after wards …that is the worst place to go to after having a bum stomach simply because cheese and bacteria…well…

  8. Sorry to hear about the food poisoning, but thanks for the recipe! Olives in fruitcake…very curious to try it.

  9. Sorry to hear about your food poisoning. This fruitcake recipe is very interesting, I stopped at "black olives"….must give it a try 🙂 Hope 2008 will be a delicious year for you!

  10. Oooo … that is bad in so many ways. Being remembered as the the one that "puked all over our factory" and missing out a lot of fun and good food. Is it possible to feel more helpless than when you’re stomach says "NO!"? One just can’t do anything. Perhaps you’ll be careful when the next ten-course meal is served.

  11. Oh, Melissa, I’m so sorry to hear about your tough Spanish foodwriting trip – must have been so frustrating! I bet the article will be good though..The fruitcake recipe with olives sounds tempting, too. Not gonna attempt it during Christmas, as there are so many other cakes I must bake already, but I’ll bookmark it for the future.Wish you and Manuel a lovely Christmas in Germany!!

  12. Oh you poor thing! I’ve had food poisoning, and all I wanted was to be in my bed (and I was only a few yards from it on my bathroom floor). It really is so horrible that you just don’t understand how bad it is until you’ve had it. I just remember being on the toilet feeling like I was going to throw up, and wondering what the hell I was going to do. Glad you’re better.

  13. oh my dear mel, that sounded awful, how brave u were to keep going! merry xmas to u n ur husband!looking forward to many more blog entries n food articles to be impressed with in 2008.

  14. My sympathies. There is a fine line between humble and humiliating – and the body knows so many ways to leap demonically right over it. The scenario can (and should?) be equally humiliating to the host who inflicts such suffering on a guest. Though not for everyone, and I’m sure it has backfired as often as not, the substances variously called "aqua vitae / uisge beatha / eau de vie" didn’t earn that title simply for bringing good humor to their imbibers. A thought worth keeping in mind when feasting in unknown lands where custom allows.On the other topic, I try to patiently suffer the hurled insults of the worlds fuitcake-haters, and bravely carry my love of what can be a culinary post-card from the Garden of Eden. I share their revulsion for the polyethylene-glycol sotted imposters, flavorless save the sickly sweet goo in which they are embalmed. But a good honest fruit cake, the compact, delectible memorae of earth’s bounty and providence – what better food to celebrate the blessings of the year gone by and the promise of the next to come. This recipe looks fit to grace a hall of kings.Blessings of the Season to you all -Corey

  15. Oh my, how awful; I’ve lived in some pretty remote areas so I can completely understand the terror that food-born illness can be. I do hope you’re feeling better and hope you have a wonderful (relaxing and internet-free) holiday!

  16. I’m so sorry to hear about your illness. What an unfortunate time and place to get ill! I have had food poisoning more than my fair share. But the most prolific moment still remains the ill conceived time I decided to make hot dogs in Ghana while living there over the American Independence Day. It seemed like a good idea, even though the hotdogs were a scary bright pink color. And the rest, as you know yourself, is not pretty. Hope you are feeling better.

  17. Please keep in mind that food poisoning can be vastly worse than what you experienced. A serious case of e coli can be fatal if not treated, even for a healthy adult.

  18. Hi Melissa, I’m a big fan of your blog, your photo’s are all so enticing and I simply love your writing style. And thanks too for the wonderful recipe, what a great ending to a wonderful 2007 and here, would like to wish you and your hub Merry Christmas and have a great 2008 ahead.

  19. It’s terrible to be hugging the toilet on assignment. I feel for you. I have just returned to Thailand after two months in India, where I was sick more often than I have been in the past 5 years.

  20. Now that the holidays are over and the craziness has subsided, I’m going to try your fruitcake (better late than never). It looks wonderful and although I’ll have to adapt by using non traditional flour, this looks like it will be an easy one to substitute with gluten-free ingredients. I’m excited to try this and have some good ideas for an exotic flour combination. Yum! Thank you!Melissa (me too)P.S. I love your blog!

  21. Melissa,Feeling so ill amongst large quantities of otherwise gorgeous food sounds tortuous! I look forward to reading your article though and seeing what you made of the experience. As for the fruitcake, it may be the first fruitcake recipe I try as I’m not a raisin fan so I usually don’t bother making them. I’ve tagged you – check it out on my blog.

  22. Hi Melissa,I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks and love the recipes you include and also love your writing style and hearing about what you’re doing. It really sounds like an exciting time for you.AND I love the look of this fruitcake. What a find. I would love to try it as it seems so unusual to me.Thankyou and have a great year this year.

  23. I am so sorry to hear that you got food poisoning! I just got back from a trip to India and Austria and while the food was mostly terrific, I caught some weird bug in India that left me prostrate for several days- and a gluten-free establishment I’d been looking forward to weeks didn’t agree with me and I spent two miserable nights. It’s the worst, trying to enjoy a trip (or get work done!) when you’re sick… But, the show/story/vacation must go on. Hope you now feel all better. Great post- you made me laugh, you made me cry (or at least feel profoundly sympathetic.) Best wishes!-sea from the book of yum

  24. Man, food poisoning is awful! I think the worst food poisoning I’ve had recently was a squash blossom and huitlacoche quesadilla in an open market in Tepoztlan, Mexico. Boy did I regret that meal for a couple weeks. I’m glad you bounced back quickly, and were able to write your article, but it sure is miserable to HAVE to eat when all you can stand is tea and maybe a bite of banana.

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  26. Oh my dear, you poor thing. Indeed I did have food poisoning, 15 years ago, and I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. My daughter and I were laid low by some iffy shrimp (I think) at the tail end of a London visit, and spent the entire day in our hotel room, moaning weakly on the beds, and watching Sesame Street on the hotel tv, in between dashes to the adjacent room-with-tiles. Anything more challenging would have been too much.I was made less bold by the experience, I’m afraid. I hope you are okay now?The fruitcake recipe looks lovely, but then I am one of the apparent minority who actually like fruitcake, as a rule.

  27. Wow! I read the article and felt extremely sorry for you! How terrible to be over in Spain and not be able to eat the wonderful food…When I was over in Spain, I’d worry about the tapas being out all day on the bars, flies going over the food! I thought that it could be a really, really bad time trying the tapas laying out for that reason alone…but many people don’t get sick from it – amazing huh!?The only tapas I had was when it came straight from the kitchen.Glad it turned out in the end for you though!

  28. I saw that stunning picture and i couldn’t read a thing on this post ! I love that plate , love the light in this picture and ofcourse the fruit loaf ! Just perfect.

  29. I discovered your blog from your mom’s posting on her blog about sql server. I just love reading your posts (a nice break from reading techie blogs). And sympathized with you on the food poisoning. It can happen at the best of restaurants, which happened to me years ago. We’re all human and mistakes can happen in the kitchen. You were so brave to soldier on with your itinerary – I just remember being so sick that I couldn’t eat the next day.Needless to say, I was excited to see the fruitcake recipe – both my father and father-in-law love fruitcake. I can’t wait to surprise them with this one.

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