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Have your cake and eat it too

The times were different. Jerry Pinto remembers when the Christmas cake was a delicate balance between hospitality and thrift.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2008 22:24 IST

The notion of a cake as a conversation between eggs and sugar, a confection that whips up dry and candied fruit and adds a spike of alcohol, that kind of cake rarely crossed the path of my childhood. For one thing, the 70s was not a time of plenty. Choices were few, shelves were empty, sugar was rationed and the idea of dry fruit was limited to walnuts, raisins and dates, lot of dates, oh quantities of dates.

<b1>Our Christmas cake therefore required much planning. Sugar had to be saved up from around Diwali when the government would sanction a few extra grams for the sweet-starved masses. We would try and get dry fruit from abroad; any homeward-bound cousin was expected to bring home a few kilos of something exotic, like prunes. (Yes, prunes were exotic, so exotic that I did not taste them until I was thirteen.)

Of course, we knew that a Christmas cake should be made at Halloween and saved for Christmas but the problem with that was storing it. If you put it in the refrigerator, it hardened into a tough resistant thing by December. If you left it out, the ants might get at it. Or the rats. Or mold. Or children.

<b2>So Christmas cake was cooked around Christmas and sliced up and placed in boxes and swathed around with wet cloths and stuck in taats of water to defy marauders. If almond icing had been used —this was rare indeed —the slices were numbered and counted with each guest.

The Christmas tray was therefore a balance between hospitality and shrewd economies of state. The neuris (or karanjis) were large and puffy; kulkuls took up a nice chunk of space as well. Rose cookies were not really considered kosher unless you were Mangalorean but many a Goan family covered some porcelain FSI with their expansive lightness. And in the corners, the milk creams (ruinously expensive, tedious to make, and often stymied by the shortage in milk or the low fat content of what was available), and the slices of Christmas cake.

When we went on Christmas visits, we were warned not to reach for the best thing on the plate. No child has ever understood this rule. No child has ever followed this rule despite the “big eyes” from the parents at the other end of the room. If you got to the tray first, you got the milk creams or you got the slice of Christmas cake. Those who got to it last had to make do with what they got. At the trough, it was each little animal for himself and the hindmost got the least interesting sweets.

“They’re so sensible,” my mother would say after we had visited a Hindu neighbour for Diwali. “A banana is such a good thing to offer”

Yes, it was. You could feed a Bombay banana to a dying man, it was said. (This always puzzled me. Why would you want to feed a dying man?) So it was healthy and it was cheap and it was the food of the Gods. A Hindu might offer it as a consecrated offering. A Catholic couldn’t. Not unless you wanted to be the talk of the parish for the rest of the year.

And as for Christmas pudding? The first time we heard of it was in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. An evocative description announces the arrival of the great dish, Mrs Cratchit’s greatest success since her marriage, as Bob pronounces it:

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered-flushed, but smiling proudly-with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

Things have changed spectacularly since then. I have in my larder a stollen from Theobroma, the best bakery in Mumbai. A friend of mine has brought me a Sainsbury Christmas pudding which I will boil ceremoniously for two hours around February when everyone else has no Christmas sweets left. Mince pies are on their way. Another friend will kick in with her yearly offering of baath (a sweet coconut cake) and milk creams. Deep rich boozy Christmas cakes will find their way into my home. The trays will be covered with the good stuff. And for old times’ sake, I might just reach for the kulkuls.

Jerry Pinto is the author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb