Considering Charleston’s connections with Great Britain, it’s likely bakers here were aware of Dundee Cake, a fruitcake that originated in 19th-century Scotland. But the pastry didn’t spark much excitement until the 1950s, when it emerged as a staple of local bakery cases. In 1952, the A&P on King Street listed it alongside sardines, Velveeta, canned beef stew and grape jelly in an advertisement touting the low prices of essential items.
Even by the lofty standards of culinary folk tales, the creation myth surrounding Dundee cake is particularly rich. The story holds that a Spanish ship carrying Seville oranges limped into Dundee’s harbor, chased by a fierce winter storm.
Janet Keiller, the grocer’s wife, took her share of the bounty and preserved them in sugar nicked from her husband’s inventory. And presto! Orange marmalade was invented.
To drum up enthusiasm for the new product, Keiller baked the marmalade into a cake with almonds, raisins and currants.
It’s probably true that the firm of James Keiller and Son, founded in 1797, wanted to promote its marmalade. But the preserve recipe existed prior to Keiller’s kitchen session. The family’s real contribution to fruit spread history was adding visible bits of rind to the mix, and manufacturing marmalade for commercial sale.
According to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” Keiller’s “found it convenient to make cakes during the part of the year when they were not making marmalade (and may well have had citrus peel to spare.)”
Other bakers in the city agreed not to reproduce the cake, but bakers elsewhere weren’t as deferential: By the early 1900s, Dundee Cake was available across the British Empire.
Twice in 1969, The News and Courier published a recipe for Dundee Cake. The recipe which appeared on New Year’s Day was fairly typical, with one glaring exception: It calls for chopped candied cherries, which many Dundee devotees shun. Although the story makes no historical sense, since Mary Queen of Scots died in 1587, it’s often said that the cake has almonds instead of cherries because the monarch insisted upon it.
Maybe not everything old is new again, but fruitcake has faded from the sweets scene so decisively that the recipe struck Charleston Grill pastry chef Chris Ryan as novel. “I cannot remember the last time I made a fruit cake,” he says. “It was probably 20 years ago.”
Ryan consulted a Scottish employee about the cake; he said he’d heard of it, but hailed from the other side of the country, so couldn’t offer any advice on how it should taste.
“I thought a lot of the fruit in the original was repetitive,” Ryan says, referring to the similarities between currants and raisins. And he wasn’t impressed by the candied cherries: He used dried cherries instead. Ryan also swapped out the raisins for dried blueberries; changed the orange peel to lemon peel; substituted pecans for almonds and used strong coffee instead of water. “It’s still a very sweet cake,” he says.
“People hear fruitcake and they’re like, ‘ugh,’ ” Ryan continues. “But a very small piece of that cake with good coffee, I think it has its place.”