Christmas, Calcutta, and Cake

Yesterday, we examined the basics of cake science, understanding the role each ingredient plays in the making of a simple pound cake. With the basics sorted, let’s crank the level up a notch. I like to think of Christmas cake as a glorified pound cake, since the technique and science remains the same, with the addition of a few crucial ingredients. However, it took some time before our favourite spiced fruitcake attained its current recognizable form.

In Medieval England, people observed a period of abstinence and fasting on the days leading up to Christmas, much like the Muslim tradition of Ramadan. On Christmas Eve, in order to condition their fasting gut to the overindulgent feast that is to come, they consumed a sort of porridge made with oatmeal, dried fruits, spices, and even meat. Over time, the formula changed. By the 1500s, flour had taken the place of the oats, meat had left the party, and more familiar ingredients like butter and sugar joined in.

Christmas Pudding (Courtesy : Jamie Oliver)

Gradually, the porridge morphed into a pudding, with the mixture being boiled in a muslin cloth to produce a dense, fudgy concoction. As household ovens became commoner, people starting baking the mixture instead of boiling it, and by the time of Victorian London, the Christmas cake achieved its current recognizable form. It was initially served on the 12th day of Christmas, the 5th of January. But after Queen Victoria banned the 12th night celebrations, confectioners reinvented the 12th night cake as something to be consumed on Christmas day.

As the British Empire started colonizing parts of the world, its food travelled with it. Families of men working in these colonies made these cakes and sent them over as Christmas hampers. And that’s how the Christmas cake landed the shores of India. In 1883, a British Planter named Murdoch Brown approached a Keralite baker, Mambally Bapu, with a rich plum cake he had brought from England, asking him to taste and recreate it.

The word plum originally referred to grapes, raisins and prunes, which explains why there’s no actual plum in plum cake. It’s a big ole misnomer. Anyways, using the best local spices and a local brew made using cashew apple and a variety of banana, Bapu baked the first Indian Christmas cake. With time, the Christmas cake tradition spread to other parts of the country, including Calcutta.

Mambally Bapu and the first Indian Christmas Cake, 1883

Two of the most renowned places for Christmas cakes in Kolkata date from the first decades of the 20th century. In 1902, a Baghdadi Jew named Nahoum Israel Mordecai opened up a confectionery business, starting off with door to door sales of cheese and baked goods, and finally setting up shop in the iconic Hogg Market, or New Market.

Nahoum’s has remained remarkably unchanged over the past century, even as everything around it changed and morphed. Walking into Nahoum’s is like stepping into the past, with its Belgian teakwood and glass façade having remained unchanged since its inception. Their Christmas cake is a class apart, with rich, warm spicy notes, and it is no wonder why people flock to this slice of history and why cakes fly off its shelves just as seamlessly as it did decades ago.

Another popular haunt is Flury’s in Park Street. Set up in 1927, this pastry shop serves a variety of pastries, apart from the usual fare of tea, coffee and a variety of café dishes, most notably the ridiculously overpriced English breakfast. During Christmas, Park Street undergoes a makeover, with decorative lights, Christmas trees and people in Santa hats flocking to the streets. And smack dab in the middle of the festivities is the almost ridiculous crowd at Flury’s where, just like Nahoum’s, Christmas cakes sell like, well, hot cakes.

The Nahoum’s Christmas Cake (Courtesy : Get Bengal)

I’ve tried cakes from both these places and I’ll have to say, I have a clear favourite. With its no-pretense, simplistic approach, the cake at Nahoum’s still reigns strong. They do not add any preservatives, as the owners say that it affects the quality of the final product. And let’s be honest here, with a cake that good, shelf life should not be a matter of concern. It is dense, flavourful, with a multitude of dried fruit and that unmistakable note of warm spices which makes it stand a class above the rest of the competition.

Of course, it’s not just Nahoum’s and Flury’s where you can get Christmas cakes in Kolkata this time of year. New Market has a lot of sellers who make Christmas cakes, stacked like bricks and filling the air with a heavenly aroma. There are a variety of cakes produced by local confectionery chains like Mio Amore and Kathleen, which was my first exposure to the Christmas Cake tradition. And finally, there is a the slightly more tedious and substantially more rewarding option of making your own Christmas cake.

Making your Christmas cake isn’t hard. All you need to do is make some tweaks to the pound cake recipe we’ve discussed already. And this is where Alton Brown’s fifth category of cake ingredients come in, the ones that impart flavour. There are a lot of these when it comes to a Christmas cake, and almost all of these are concentrated in a concoction that transforms a humble pound cake to a glorious Christmas cake.

During December, shops in New Market stock up on a ton of ingredients you’ll find in fruitcakes in the West, like black and golden raisins, prunes, dates, apricots, candied orange peel and crystallised ginger. And then there are the local ingredients: koromcha or carissa, better known as Indian cherry, petha or chunks of candied ash gourd and of course, tutti-frutti, small, brightly coloured bits of candied papaya which gives the Calcutta Christmas Cake its signature look.

At the most basic level, all you need to do to turn a pound cake into a Christmas cake is add all of these ingredients, along with spices and alcohol. Of course, things can be a bit more interesting. A common practice when making fruitcake is to soak the fruits in alcohol, a good quality rum, whisky, brandy, liquers, whatever floats your boat. Add the chopped dried fruit in a jar, pour in the booze, close the lid, and let it sit at room temp for about 15-20 days, giving it a shake every other day.

Cake Mixing (Courtesy : Lemon in Ginger)

Cake mixing has become an annual tradition in Kolkata in the big bakeries. Although it is a bit of a marketing gimmick, it hearkens back to the old traditions of 17th century Europe, specifically Stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent, when members of the family gathered together to prepare the Christmas pudding. On this day, huge amounts of dried fruit and liquers and mixed up and bottled, about a month prior to Christmas. Over time, the flavours meld and produces a rich, heady concoction that forms the soul of the cake.

Assembling the soaked fruit cake mixture is very similar to the pound cake recipe. You cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs and flour, and then add the three major game-changers: the soaked fruit, the chopped nuts, and the spice mix. Although you can get premade spice blends in New Market, it is very simple to make your own using whatever spices you prefer: ground ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and allspice. Remember that the fruits and nuts shift the dry-wet balance a little bit, so you might need to adjust the flour accordingly.

Christmas fruitcake a la me, 2017

Other alterations? You could swap out some of the regular flour for almond meal which would still act as a drier, but thanks to the absence of gluten and high fat content, results in a softer, less chewy crumb. Also, swap out the regular sugar for brown sugar which is basically white coated in caramel or molasses, giving it a richer, almost spicy note. Also, brown sugar is more hygroscopic than white sugar so it acts as a more potent moisturizer, which might mean amping up the flour if needed.

The rich, heavy mixture is then baked low and slow to ensure that it cooks all the way through. Although you could eat it immediately, you could also bake it weeks in advance and “feed” it with a spoonful of alcohol every week to prevent it from drying out and helping it develop in flavour.

Dense, flavourful and laden with a multitude of fruits and nuts, the fruitcake is the epitome of indulgence. Whether to prefer buying it from reputed bakeries or try making one at home, the rich fruitcake is undoubtedly one the most important elements of the Calcutta Christmas.

Here’s wishing all the readers of The Gourmet Glutton a very Merry Christmas!

Calcutta Christmas Cake (Courtesy : Bong Eats)

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