Visitors to Priyadarsini John’s home in Belapur, Navi Mumbai, usually make a beeline for the balcony from where you get a splendid view of the waterfront outside. But visit at the end of November or early December and your nose may just draw you to her kitchen. You will also wonder if it’s already Christmas because that’s the time Priyadarsini soaks candied fruit for her cake and her home is suffused with the aroma of red wine and fruit.
Soaking candied fruit and nuts — raisins, sultanas, cranberries, prunes, candied peel, candied ginger, dates, glacé cherries, almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts — with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ground ginger in alcohol (traditionally rum and brandy) for Christmas cake is a tradition many Indian families follow. Indeed, soaking is essential as dry fruit or fruit soaked only for a few days makes the cake crumble when it is cut. And as any Christian family knows (even if we exaggerate slightly), the family’s honour depends on the quality of homemade cake offered to guests during Christmas.
“This (the idea of fruit mixing) goes back to the 17th and 18th century,” says Chef Surjan Singh Jolly, executive chef, the Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel, Powai. “In earlier days, they used to call it plum pudding although the recipes never contained plum. The whole idea behind cake mixing is rubbing in your good luck for Christmas.”
While Priyadarsini, an associate professor at DY Patil University, soaks her fruit a month in advance, she says ideally, the mix should be soaked 2-3 months before baking. This lets the mix completely soak up the alcohol and this gives the cake that distinctive rich aroma and flavour Christmas cakes are so well known for.
You can tell how long the fruit has been soaked the moment you slice it. “If not soaked, the fruit will be hard and fall out of the cake,” says Priyadarsini.
In her attempt to bake the perfect cake, Thane-based food consultant Saee Koranne-Khandekar soaks her fruit mix eight months in advance. Khandekar, whose mother was an avid baker, started preparing a fruit mix for the first time almost six years ago. Though she started with soaking the mix in rum and brandy, she switched to cointreau, an orange-flavoured liqueur, recently because of its unique flavour.
For many, preparing the fruit mix is a family ritual. Arlene D’Souza has memories of prowling the bylanes of the dry fruit wholesale market in Delhi’s Khari Baoli with her father in search of the best quality fruit for the family’s cake.
They would return with at least 10kg of fruit and then she and her four siblings would get started. The boys would start hammering at the walnuts, eating considerable amounts along the way; one of her sisters, a whiz with the knife, would start on the raisins and cherries while Arlene and her older sister would start chopping nuts. Her dad would handle the difficult bits like the candied peel and ginger while her mother returned home from office to smells of candied fruit and rum.
“I remember being covered in flour in the run-up to Christmas during most of my early teenage years,” says Arlene. “We didn’t get much time to soak the fruit since our prep started only when Dad, who was in the army, came on leave a few weeks before Christmas Day. But our cake always tasted the best because we liberally doused the fruit with rum.”
That was 20 years ago. Today, few have the time for elaborate mixing. Working woman Priyadarsini prepares her fruit mix when she gets the time, with her 12-year-old daughter helping her occasionally. Some don’t involve the family for other reasons. “Baking is a family affair. But I mix the fruit quietly at home and put it at the back of the fridge. If I don’t do that, there won’t be anything there to mix,” laughs Khandekar, who has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
Aged cake anyone?
Everyone has different recipes for their fruit mix and cakes which many guard fiercely. Sixty-five year old Lucy Job, a Navi Mumbai resident, says she prefers recipes that use less fruit and more flour. She has already soaked about 3kg of fruit in rum and brandy and hopes to start baking on December 22.
Because of the alcohol and sugar in the cake, Christmas cake keeps better than other cakes. “My cake won’t spoil for a year,” says Lucy. “I don’t even have to keep it in the fridge. I just sprinkle rum on top, seal it with foil and keep it in an air-tight container.
Khandekar has a few tips for aspiring bakers. You must toss the soaked fruits into a dry mixture of flour and cocoa first. “If you add them to a wet or runny mixture of eggs, butter and sugar, the mix will sink to the bottom and you’ll have an uneven fruit cake.” Once the cake is baked, a few people like to poke holes in it and add more alcohol — a step Khandekar skips, hoping to “keep the booze to a minimum, with a child around.”
Fruit mix: l1cup dried chopped fruit (like raisins, figs, dates, prunes, glacé cherries) l½ cup chopped assorted nuts l1tbsp candied peel l1tbsp candied ginger l1½ cups rum or brandy For the cake: l2 eggs l100gm butter l100gm flour l 100gm brown sugar l Big pinch each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger pdr l Small pinch clove pdr l½ tsp vanilla extract l½ tsp baking pdr l Icing sugar, to dust
Soak fruit mix in alcohol 1-2 months before baking. Mix fruit once in a while to ensure even soaking.
Sift flour, baking powder & powdered spices in a large bowl. Add soaked fruit and toss lIn a separate bowl, beat butter until light. Add sugar gradually, beat until well-combined.
Add eggs, vanilla, whisk until fluffy. Tip this mixture into the dry mixture and fold to combine.
Pour into a greased, lined 8-inch round baking tin. Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for 45-60 mins.
If done, a toothpick inserted should come out clean lRemove cake from tin, cool. If you have any soaking liquid left, prick little holes in the cake and pour it through. This will enhance moistness and flavor. Dust with icing sugar when ready to serve.
Courtesy Saee Koranne Khandekar