Bridget White Kumar has a secret—or maybe not so any more—ingredient for her Christmas cakes: dates, and then more dates, this time as a syrup, added to the cake mix just before baking. “It gives the cake a deep colour,” she says.
Even as she speaks, Kumar, who has written seven books on Anglo-Indian cooking, carefully flips through the weathered pages of her grandmother’s century-old recipe book in Bangalore. She has borrowed several recipes from the family’s culinary bible, but her Christmas cake recipe comes from years of tweaking by her grandmother and then her mother.
“There isn’t one recipe for the perfect Christmas cake, every family has a different one and that’s the perfect one for them,” says Kumar, recalling her formative years in the former British mining colony of Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka, when the month before Christmas was exhausting, with weeks of preparation followed by days of cooking. “Everything was a family activity and the grand item was, of course, the Christmas cake,” says Kumar. “It was never a community event, it was a family thing.”
Heady start: Several kilograms of dry fruits being soaked in alcohol at Bangalore’s ITC Gardenia. Photograph by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
Even now, preparations begin two months before Christmas, when Kumar goes shopping for dried fruits that are then chopped/diced. The alcohol in which the cut fruits are soaked is a personal choice. Kumar opts for rum or brandy.
“But the most important part is the mixing; if you get that right not much can go wrong,” she says, adding that the tradition of mixing came with the British and has stayed on to become an event that is parcelled with the celebration of Christmas both at homes and in restaurants and bakeries. Over time, bakeries have made the mixing of fruits for Christmas symbolic of the beginning of the festive season.
At the ITC Gardenia, Bangalore, pastry chef Arvind Prasad’s recipe changed every year for nine years until 2010, when he seemed to have achieved a certain level of perfection that he measured from the overwhelming response he got from hotel guests. At the annual cake-mixing event last week, when the staff laid out ingredients for invitees to come and mix, the air smelled of alcohol.
“We used brandy, rum, whisky and wine in varied measures to soak the fruit,” says Prasad of his power mix, which indicates why the cake got such a giddy response the previous year.
Kumar inherited her recipe from her grandmother. Photograph by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
But while Prasad was fairly generous in revealing his magic potion, for most bakeries the recipe remains a guarded secret.
Delhi’s Wenger’s, established in 1926, got its recipe from its original Swiss owners. Unchanged since, it’s such a secret that manager Charanjeet Singh won’t even say how much alcohol and fruit they buy for the annual mixture. At the bustling bakery that is as old as Connaught Place, the city’s central plaza, these are the busiest days of the year. Huge steel jars have to be brought out and cleaned. Kilograms upon kilograms of plums, raisins, almonds, cashews, black currants and other dry fruits have to be hand-picked, cleaned, roasted and pounded for the mixing. “We sold 1,500kg of cakes last Christmas. They don’t make glass jars in sizes that can hold the mix for such huge quantities,” says Singh.
At Flury’s, the 84-year-old Park Street institution in Kolkata, the first round of preparations is already over. Though the ceremonial mixing of the cake is to be held in the third week of November, when about 1 tonne of fruits will be mixed and soaked in alcohol, it’s largely a symbolic affair with celebrities and the media in attendance, according to executive chef Vikas Kumar. The “real mixing”—of about 2,000kg of dry fruits in a 100-litre cocktail of brandy and rum—happens as early as the last week of September and the first week of October. That’s the secret to the crumbly moist plum cakes that have come to be the physical embodiment of the Christmas spirit for generations of Kolkatans.
Preparations for the 9 tonnes of Christmas cake order that Bangalore’s Koshy’s bakery receives begin six months earlier, when dried fruit is marinated in sugar and spices. Four months later, the fruits are mixed with other ingredients that the bakery won’t reveal. The recipe has been with the bakery for 65 years. P.V. Abraham, the 62-year-old manager of the bakery, who has been making cakes for 42 years now, says, “We have some regulars who we take orders from, but in the weeks around the end of December we have several walk-ins.”
He adds, “Sometimes, there’s not enough cake for everyone.”
Rich Plum Cake
300g refined flour (maida)
1/4 tsp salt
300g brown sugar
100g powdered white sugar
300g mixed dry fruit (chopped into small pieces and soaked in rum/brandy for one-two months)
1 tsp finely grated orange rind
3 eggs, beaten well
1/2 cup cold milk
1 tsp nutmeg powder
1 tsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp date syrup
Cream the butter, sugar and brown sugar well. Add the beaten eggs, date syrup and vanilla essence, and mix well. Add the orange rind, dried fruits, nutmeg and cinnamon powder, and mix. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together in a big bowl. Fold the flour into the butter mixture. If the mixture is too thick, add some milk. When evenly mixed, pour the mixture into a greased and papered cake tin, and bake in a hot oven for 45 minutes at 150 degrees Celsius or till the cake is cooked inside and brown on top.
Recipe courtesy Bridget White Kumar.