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Strong Bread, Strong Business:

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CRIPPEN CAKES: Sylvia Crippen makes the batter for her famous fruitcake, sold locally at Pine Valley Market. Photo by Amanda Greene

CRIPPEN CAKES: Sylvia Crippen makes the batter for her famous fruitcake, sold locally at Pine Valley Market. Photo by Amanda Greene

“Light me on fire! That fruitcake is stout.” Those were the first thoughts that came to mind after tasting Sylvia Crippen’s famed fruitcake. And it was closely followed by: “Maybe I could have just one more little piece.”

Each mini loaf weighs about a pound, is a deep chocolate brown and so sweet and moist, with a gentle bite. That’s the ample amount of bourbon and molasses the Forest Hill resident soaks her fruit and nuts in for at least 24 hours before she ever mixes the batter.

Sylvia and her husband, Rex Crippen, retirees from Connecticut, have been making this family recipe, passed down from his mother, for the last 30 years. “I started making them for my family, nieces and nephews, for weekend parties and as hostess gifts when we had parties in our home at Christmas time in Connecticut,” Sylvia said. “Mrs. Crippen (Sylvia’s mother-in-law) made them until her husband died just before Christmas in 1968, and she just stopped making them.”

A few years later, Sylvia began making her mother-in-law’s recipe. She has been following the cycle of marinating, mixing and baking each December since.

Fruitcake has been a popular fall and winter tradition dating back to Europe in the Middle Ages. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “variations on the fruitcake started springing up: Italy’s dense, sweet-and-spicy panforte (literally, ‘strong bread’) dates back to 13th century Sienna; Germany’s stollen, a tapered loaf coated with melted butter and powdered sugar that’s more bread-like in consistency, has been a Dresden delicacy since the 1400s and has its own annual festival; and then there’s black cake in the Caribbean Islands, a boozy descendant of Britain’s plum pudding where the fruit is soaked in rum for months, or even as long as a year. The tradition of making fruitcakes for special occasions, such as weddings and holidays, gained in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and due to the cost of the materials, it was a grand indulgence.”

For the Crippen family, they couldn’t imagine Christmas without making the family recipe. Neither can their friends.

“Rex has been retired since 1998, and some people from his office still request the fruitcakes,” Sylvia added. Other friends post about their fruitcakes on Facebook and word gets out.

Last year, Sylvia asked Rex if he thought they could sell The Crippen Fruitcake. His response: “Why not?”

In their first season, the Crippens sold 400 fruitcakes to family, friends and at Carolina Farmin’.

In their kitchen, Sylvia wears her signature red apron, embroidered with “Mrs. Crippin’s Dark, Rich Fruitcake.” Rex wears industrial black plastic gloves to hand-mix the fruit and nuts that have been marinating in their bourbon mixture over night. Sylvia mans the mixer, following the recipe to the letter; though she’s made it scores of times.

“I sort of know it, but since I’m doing it to sell, I look at the recipe because I think, Let’s not be crazy, let’s follow the recipe,” she said while spraying mini loaf pans.

Rex continues hand-mixing as Sylvia pours the batter into the mounds of vaporous fruit and nuts. He said he occasionally helped his own mother make this recipe many years ago.

Baking these cakes isn’t a quick affair. Each batch takes an hour and a half at 250 degrees. While they bake, Sylvia usually works on a jigsaw puzzle in the living room or reads to pass the time.

“But because of the bourbon, they’ll keep in the refrigerator or freezer forever,” Sylvia added.

One of the Crippen’s family friends freezes the fruitcakes and slices tiny pieces from them to stretch them out throughout the year.

This season, the Crippens got even more professional in their new business, ordering custom white fruitcake boxes with their red holly and green ribbon logo with “Mrs. Crippen’s Fruitcakes” embossed on the top.

They only accept cash or check for the $14 fruitcake. They’re still considering the merits of credit cards. “The children want me to have a website, but I don’t even order things on the Internet,” Sylvia said. “I know I need to do it [for the business] though.”

So far this season, Sylvia’s made one version of fruitcakes without artificial dyes for several health-food stores and many original batches. She recently dropped off a batch of original recipe cakes to Pine Valley Market.

“It is a straight-out-of-1970’s ‘Good Housekeeping’ version of fruitcake,” Pine Valley’s chef and owner, Christi Ferretti, said. “She really makes it the old way. I like to support local people and products, and she puts a lot of love into her cakes.”

Still, fruitcake, she said, is an acquired taste, and its popularity comes and goes. “What she has is denser but not gelled like so many commercial fruitcakes,” Ferretti added. “Hers is like a really hearty bread.”

Sylvia Crippen can be reached at 910-251-5050 or by e-mail at for orders. Or head over to Pine Valley Market for the purchase.

Amanda Greene is the editor of Wilmington Faith & Values at Do you have a volunteer opportunity to highlight? Email her at or call 910-520-3958.

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