Home for the Holidays: The Spirit of Christmas Cake
An annual baking tradition that heralded the season of cheer and year-end magic
In our family, Christmas cake brought joy long before it was unwrapped at Christmas time to become the symbol of good tidings and cheer to all men. This grand annual production called for planning months ahead and everybody was expected to pitch in and do their bit for family honour. As young as eight years old, I remember sitting on upturned dalda tins in the dingy bakery and feeling mighty important as I wrote out our family name on strips of paper to be carefully placed atop the wobbling batter so that our cakes would not get mixed up in the oven.
At the beginning of November, families would lean across the pews in church and whisper the question: ‘How many kilos of cake this Christ- mas?’ Those expecting large contingents of guests would hazard five kilos, which, wait a moment, meant five kilos each of flour, fruit, unsalted butter and ghee and then at least two-and- a-half to three kilos of dry fruits and
nuts—resulting in a gargantuan number of cakes for family and friends.
In keeping with the spirit of the season, the recipe for a Christmas cake is most forgiving. The Indian version is actually a close cousin of British plum pudding also served at Christmas time. Indian Christians add a generous dose of hot spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and shahi zeera (royal cumin seeds); roasted dry and then ground and added, also referred to as ‘cake masala’.
In Allahabad of the 1970s, when I was growing up, perishables like butter and eggs could not be bought off the shelf at one shot; fridges were a rarity as was the uninterrupted electricity to run it. If winter had set in you could manage to store a few days’ worth of butter. The rest of the shortening would be made up by ghee which was readily available. A proper Christmas cake called for two dozen eggs per kilogram of flour, a mindboggling ratio necessary because of the weight of fruits. The small desi (country) eggs would be stored in earthen jars filled with lime water for up to a month.
‘Cake shopping’ heralded the start of the show and was always done in Chowk, the market hub of Allahabad. My parents, both busy doctors, would take an afternoon off to do the shop- ping, my father weaving the jeep through the narrow congested by- lanes, and my older brother and I vainly trying to keep the empty tins for ghee and fruit from rolling around and clattering at the back.
Both the quality and quantity of dry fruit and nuts was critical to the final outcome. The accepted ratio of flour to nuts was 1:3. Peels were important for their colour and fruity flavour and my mother had to look the other way at the artificial colouring. After the dry fruit was washed and aired, it was time for the chopping and dicing. The most honest volunteers, the ones least likely to nibble their way through, were given the expensive walnuts, pine nuts and almonds to handle. Chopping of peels on the other hand, was a downright lowly task. So, the young ones who wanted to help were usually given this task till they tired and ran off.
A special ingredient in the cakes in north India was the translucent petha—cubes of white pumpkin soaked in sugar syrup and resembling Turkish delight in both flavour and texture. Petha, chopped into tiny cubes, added just the right shot of cloying sweetness and the tiny cubes of translucent whiteness held their own in the brown batter.
On D-day (baking day) preparations would begin by mid-morning. Lists were gone over thoroughly; nothing could be allowed to go wrong.
Sugar those days was quite coarse and had to be ground before mixing into the batter. The spice masala was readied and the rest of the ingredients now emerged from the storeroom. Till the 1960s, the baker would come home to do the mixing and then cart the ready batter away, but later it was all done at the bakery itself.
The best slot was early December as this allowed the cake to sit for two- three weeks for the flavours to intensify. The preferred time was five p.m. when the oven had cooled down a bit after the intense heat for regular bread and buns. The subsequent low, steady heat of the wood-fired ovens allowed the fruit to cook and promised a gentle crust with an evenly baked crumb.
Camp was set up in the baking room, the warm light from the oven bouncing on the dark tins and casting a magical spell on an early winter evening. The mixing would begin, the baker expertly breaking up the butter and ghee using his hand as a whip to combine the ground sugar. One hand was for mixing and with the other he would break the eggs in one by one, both hands never touching each other and working in a rhythmic motion.
‘Gosh, we forgot the caramel!’ and then there would be a mad scramble. Most bakers had a small kerosene stove which could be fired up to make the caramel—a delicate affair, which lent the cake its lovely golden hue. Altogether an expensive production, nothing was to be wasted, so to the scraps of dough sticking to the mixing bowl were added a few eggs and jaggery to fashion Christmassy-flavoured festive biscuits.
Back to our Christmas cake now gently perfuming the small room while things were put away and the tin trunks cleared out. The seniors would be fussing, worried that their precious cake would burn but the baker’s decision was final. Once the cakes came out, they were allowed to cool down and then packed for the short trip home where they would be overturned on the dining table overnight to allow any moisture to dry out.
The next morning, they would be removed from their tins, packed neatly into metal trunks, covered with butter- paper and set aside to be opened only on Christmas Day. When you tasted your first slice of this honey-coloured cake, a staggering variety of fruits and nuts crumbling in every mouthful and the subdued aroma of spices filling your senses, you knew that Christmas hath truly arrived!
Excerpted with permissions from the book Indian Christmas, edited by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle, Speaking Tiger, 2022
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