Sometimes Phil Hellwege makes 27 pounds of fruitcake. Sometimes it’s 28 pounds.
“It depends on how much decoration you put on top,” said Hellwege, who lives in Creve Coeur.
Lest you get the wrong impression, I should point out that he does not bake one single 28-pound fruitcake, or even 27 pounds. He bakes a dozen or more smaller fruitcakes, all at the same time.
And lest you get a different wrong impression, he doesn’t do all the work himself anymore. Hellwege is 85, so most of the work is done by his grandson, David Newell, who lives in Chesterfield.
Which means that Hellwege’s grandson is making more or less the same fruitcakes that Hellwege’s grandfather made. It’s a recipe that has been in the family for five generations, only it hasn’t been made by two of those generations.
Hellwege’s grandfather was J.A. Mueller, a young baker in Germany who immigrated to the United States in the 1880s. He ended up in St. Louis, which had a large German population at the time, and worked at a few bakeries before opening his own place. Eventually, he had several bakeries around town, known variously as Mueller’s Bakery or J.A. Mueller Bakery and Confectionery.
Because of the anti-German sentiment during the World Wars, incidentally, Mueller came to be pronounced like Miller.
“I knew him when he was still running the bakery. He gave it up during the Second World War. He was getting older, and it was getting harder back then getting shortening and sugar because of the rationing during the war,” Hellwege said.
Mueller brought several recipes back from the old country with him, including the one for fruitcake. He sold it every year at his bakeries and also made loaves for his family and friends.
“I helped him make the cake, and he kind of phased out of it. As a teenager, I picked it up and kept on. My mother and her sister — his two daughters — loved the fruitcake but weren’t interested in making it at all. I’ve been making it all these years. My son and my daughter loved the fruitcake, but they had no interest in making it,” Hellwege said.
Over the years, Hellwege has made a few tweaks to the original recipe. As a concession to cost — this is not an inexpensive proposition — he has switched from using only butter to a half-and-half mixture of butter and butter-flavored margarine. Instead of pouring whiskey over the top, he uses brandy because he thinks it goes better with the other ingredients.
The original recipe also called for dark raisins, which were all that were easily available at the time. Hellwege now uses a mixture of dark and golden raisins. In addition, he replaced one pound of the raisins with an extra pound of glazed fruit.
But the rest of the recipe is the same, from the pecans to the dark molasses to the spices (allspice, cinnamon, cloves) to the 30 eggs — yes, 30 eggs. In fact, flour only makes up about 10% of the fruitcakes’ weight; the rest is all the good stuff that makes fruitcake so delicious.
Not that everyone agrees. When Hellwege’s son went away to college, he was surprised to learn that many of his classmates did not like fruitcake.
“Of course, they bought it at the store, and it wasn’t rich in ingredients like I make it,” Hellwege said.
And they also weren’t as rich in tradition. Hellwege uses some of the loaf pans that his grandfather used at the bakery.
That makes it 27 pounds of fruitcake and a lot of love.