Johnny Carson used to joke there was only one of these in the world, and it was passed from family to family. Others see how far they can fling it every Christmas day. Fruitcake has long been the red-headed stepchild of holiday confections. But it doesn't have to be.
Many countries have their own version of sweet, often fruit-filled holiday bread. Most deserve as much adoration as the classic gingerbread cookie. Here are five you'll find around town now. They make great gifts and potluck additions. No joke.
1. Hans Röckenwagner couldn't find a stollen he liked as much as the ones he received from German relatives every year, so he started making his own. The oblong breads ($3.25, $9 or $14) he sells at the two Rockenwagner Bakery locations, and at 3 Square Café and Bakery, are filled with the requisite rum-soaked fruit and candied citrus rind. It's soft, not dense, and not as sweet as the fruitcakes almost nobody wants. Let it sit for a day or two and have a slice for breakfast with coffee. It also makes fantastic French toast, which you'll find at the Abbot Kinney cafe.
12835 Washington Blvd., Mar Vista, (310) 578-8171; 311 Arizona Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 394-4267; 1121 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 399-6504; www.rockenwagner.com.
2. At Euro Pane, Sumi Chang's traditional German flies off the shelves during the holidays. Her version is super moist and dense, with marzipan and rum-soaked dried fruits (apricots, dates, currants and cranberries), and dusted in powdered sugar. Like Rockenwagner's, it gets even better after a few days. (Small loaves are $8.50 and large are $12.50).
950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 577-1828.
3. When it comes to Italian holiday bread, puffy panettone usually gets top billing. Boxes of the sweet bread are sold at many large grocery stores these days. But at The Village Bakery, Barbara Monderine's Panforte di Siena, a rich, dense, chewy fruit-filled cake, is nothing like that. It's chock-full of hazelnuts and almonds; spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and black pepper; and all held together by local Feral Bee Honey. This cake is great on its own, but perfect on a cheese plate.
3119 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater Village, (323) 662-8600; www.thevillagebakeryandcafe.com.
4. Now that La Monarca Bakery has finally debuted in Santa Monica, the chances of getting the popular Rosca de Reyes, a traditional bread served for King's Day (Jan. 6), has tripled. The rings of sweet bread are decorated with strips of candied cactus, and two or three plastic dolls of the baby Jesus are hidden throughout. (Whoever finds a prize in their slice, has to throw next year's party). The bread is baked daily and served by the slice ($4) at all three locations. Orders are now being taken for the whole breads ($25 or $45), which are available from Dec. 26 through Jan. 8, but you can also walk in and buy a slice.
1300 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-1114; 5700 E. Whittier Blvd., Commerce, (323) 869-8800; 6365 Pacific Blvd., Huntington Park; (323) 585-5500; lamonarcabakery.com.
5. In addition to pumpkin loaf with pumpkin seeds or seasonal breads like chocolate and sour cherry, which are as good as dessert, La Brea Bakery this year debuted a Golden Fig Loaf. This dark bread is made with rye and pumpernickel flours then sweetened with amber honey and studded with fruit. Think about using this in bread pudding and topping it with caramel sauce and fresh whipped cream. The Golden Fig must be special ordered at least two days in advance.
624 S. La Brea Ave., Miracle Mile, (323) 939-6813; www.labreabakery.com.
Holiday Bonus: Want something more savory? Try this festive black-and-gold bread from Breadbar.