Christmas cake, anyone?
The Christmas plum cake is as synonymous with the festival as the Christmas tree — if not more. By the time you read this, your cakes would have been baked and that mouth-watering aroma would be wafting across not just your house but through the houses of the neighbours as well.
But what is it about the Christmas plum cake that will force your hand to pick up a second and then a third piece too? Is it its richness? Is it the flavour of rum-soaked fruit? Or is it the effort of preparing it that makes it so sweet?
There are two common perceptions going round: a) Nothing beats a home-baked cake, or, b) Nothing beats the one done at the bakers. The truth is both perceptions are right and both wrong! Christmas cake is never baked at home because they are never just one, two or three, or even 10! The baker merely puts everything together and then the mix is poured into casts which go into the wood-fired oven.
Preparation for the cake begins literally weeks in advance. The ingredients are bought, and generally, in each household, there is a dedicated grandfather ‘Christmas cake trunk’ that holds the ingredients as they are bought and readied.
The main ingredient, which governs proportions and decides the measure of other ingredients, is sugar (and not the flour)! So, if you wish to bake a cake of 3kg, the first ingredient that finds its way into the ‘cake trunk’ is 3kg of sugar. Matching the weight of the sugar is the flour, and into the trunk it goes.
Next in is a mix of dry fruits (walnuts, almonds and cashew nuts), generally, 1/3 the weight of the sugar. These provide crunch and flavour. They are cut almost to crumbs, for you wouldn’t want a whole walnut in the bite of cake that you take.
Peels – sugar syrup-cured rinds of oranges, lemons and papaya skin – are the problem part of the cake-making process. Imagine half an orange peel. That is the size they come in but that is not the size that you finally consume. The lady of the house takes it upon herself to painstakingly cut strips of the halves and then dice each fine strip into equal cubes – the same size that the dry fruit was cut – a sticky, messy affair requiring a lot of hand-washing. When all are cut, there is one big mound of red green and orange cubes that gets stored in plastic bags and in the trunk. Not only do peels provide flavour but also colour.
Providing even more flavour are ginger chips, which are dried pieces of the root, cooked in sugar and dried again. You get the chips which again need to be diced to the same size as the nuts and the peels.
Another essential is petha. Not the chunks that you know the sweet as but again diced into that same size. Also added for flavour and colour are cherries: again chopped to the right size.
So, when you refer to 3 kg of peels, it includes the rinds, the ginger chips, petha and the cherries.
For a 3 kg cake, you also require 3kg of raisins. Some people like to break up that quantity into red/black raisins and the green variety, while some even like to add currants to the mix: the more the merrier. Whatever your preference, stems and other debris is picked from the raisins/currants, after which they are washed with a few waters, before being spread out on carefully selected newspaper sheets to dry. Drying out the raisins is imperative for if they hold even a bit of moisture, rest assured that your cake will soon sprout fungus. Don’t wash them and the cake will carry the grime in every bite. The jury is still out trying to decide which is more tedious: cutting the peels or picking, washing and drying the raisins. And into the trunk goes the packet carrying the raisins.
Some people also like to soak the dried raisins in rum. The measure depends on how strong you would like the flavour of rum to stand out, and it is a measure perfected through years of trial and error.
Another important ingredient is saltless butter or (asli) ghee: again 3kg, and into the trunk it goes.
And while we are talking cake ingredients, let’s not forget eggs. The measure is a little more than two dozen eggs for each kilogram of sugar used. So for a 3 kg cake, six dozen eggs would broadly do it, though the baker will almost always add half a dozen or so eggs from his side.
And that is your trunk of ingredients complete, if you’ve added a little bottle of vanilla essence too.
Then it is time to book a date with your family baker and cart everything to him. Bakers usually start baking cakes of people from the 15th of the month and oftentimes, the baking continues till Christmas Eve. Many people make it a point to have their cakes baked on Christmas Eve itself as part of family tradition, or to really usher in Yuletide at the ‘right time’.
At the bakers, sit men with huge cauldrons in which the butter and sugar is first mixed into a paste by hand. Then goes in the flour into the mix. After the flour, caramalised sugar is added, which lends colour to the cake. The darker colour cake you like, the more caramalsied sugar is added.
Finally, a mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and mace spice, finely powdered is thrown into the mix. Along with the vanilla essence, it is these spices that give the cake its characteristic aroma.
Then it is the turn of the eggs and the fruit; clockwise and anti-clockwise the mix is beaten till it is all one gooey, homogenous mix.
As soon as the beating is over, and without a moment’s delay, the moulds are brought and the batter is dropped equally into them. If the batter keeps standing too long the fruit will settle and you will then have cakes which have fruit only at the bottom and just the dough on top. In a 3 kg cake, you manage to fill something like 30-32 big (brick-size) and small (half a brick) moulds, which are then put into the oven.
Three hours later, the cake(s) are ready to be taken home – in the same grandfather trunk which carried the raw material – and served to guests and exchanged with friends and relatives.