My folks in Kerala ate plum cake every year during Christmas. Anyone who stopped by our home during that time could expect a slice of cake next to their tea cup. In December, cakes of all shapes, sizes and decorations took over the glass shelves of local sweet shops. Bakers were challenged to bake the biggest possible cake. Artistic sugar renditions on the cake were made to look like tropical fruits, animals or buildings. Kids begged and reasoned with their parents to bring a well-decorated cake home. When our uncle got us a pineapple shaped cake, it made him a hero at our local school.
Noushad became my close friend during high school, which opened the doors to his family bakery. They supplied bread and pastries to local retail shops. The traditional brick oven-they called it a bormba-was inside a one-room structure next to their home. It was always kept tidy and treated with respect. No one was allowed to enter the room with shoes on. They baked everything using the bormba. Noushad once told me that when they reconstructed the baking chamber, they collected empty glass bottles from the neighborhood, crushed them and mixed them with concrete, which helped to retain heat for several hours.
When the bakery was busy, Noushad’s home smelled of sweet milk buns and butter biscuits. When you entered the bakery, the wooden racks were stacked with bread loaves and cookies. There was no automation. Instead Noushad and his brothers kneaded the dough into long braids using their bare hands. Kneading is like fighting a big snake. Their muscular biceps and forearms stood testament to their hard work. Noushad’s dad was in charge of the oven. He spread coconut shells in the chamber and fired it up to make charcoal. He explained that coconut shells were better because they generated less ash and had the aroma of coconut oil. Once the charcoal was red hot and the bed was ready, he inserted the batter filled pans with a shovel like a spatula. With the shovel’s long wooden handle, cakes were pushed to the back of the oven.
During Christmas close friends were invited to help out at the bakery. We got to crush the nuts and chop the raisins, prepare the pans with butter and pack cakes in wax paper. My favorite task was to trim and level the sides of a cake before it was decorated with icing. This meant handfuls of cake crumbs and tidbits to munch on at the end of every cake dressing.
Back then we had a neighbor, Auntie Leela, who worked in Europe but chose our town to retire. She and her two dachshund dogs lived in a hilltop villa next to an all-girls boarding school. It had a patio with a view of the paddy field in the foothills and I would often see her sitting there holding a tea mug. It was strange, so I assumed that’s how the English enjoyed their tea. She also liked to bake.
Every year she meticulously prepared the Christmas cake batter with cocoa and brandy soaked dry fruits and brought it to Noushad’s oven, baking several cakes in a single batch. Those special cakes were then wrapped in wax paper and sent to her friends in far places as a holiday gift. Brandy was haram (forbidden) in Noushad’s family so they never tasted it. He sometimes managed to sneak a small cake out for his friends and after gorging on it, I would often describe it to my siblings, it to my siblings, much to their envy. Once we even planned to raid Auntie Leela’s pantry while she was out at the post office, but the thought of the dachshunds made us hesitate.
When I got married to Sheena, my mother insisted that we take her oven, a Glen brand with a baking unit, to our new home in Bangalore. The following December we baked our first cake. A lot of work went into chopping the raisins and mixing the ingredients. The cake came out lopsided with a big crack in the middle. Noushad, when he heard about it, said baking powder probably ruined it but we later learned that a lot of things had gone wrong. It took a while for us to be brave enough to bake again, and by then we had moved to the United States where home baking is ingrained in the local culture.
The grandeur of Christmas here in the United States is revealed throughout December. A million lights and bright ornaments breathe new life into the neighborhood at night. Santa Claus springs up in shopping malls and children line up to talk to him and take pictures with him. Radio channels play nonstop Christmas songs all month long. Parties at the office and home center on food and overeating is acceptable. Everything on earth goes on sale and malls serve warm apple cider and cookies to cheer up the snow-drenched shoppers. It’s hard to avoid the festival frenzy, so everyone goes with the flow. But I still missed our plum cakes.
It surprises me that plum cake is not easily accessible in the United States. The closest thing to it is a fruitcake. A fruitcake is the butt of many jokes and may be the most ridiculed holiday food. I once bought a heavy fruit cake from a European bakery. The cake was dense with dried fruits and nuts and it smelled of sugar syrup. It felt gooey in the mouth with lumps of very sweet oversized fruits and missed the essential spices. A comedian once said that there is only one fruitcake in the world that gets passed from household to household. The jokes made more sense as we ate.
Humor aside, there are many ethnic communities that pursue the art of making a Christmas cake in different ways. All of them have a European influence and the basic ingredients-dried fruits, nuts and spices. Caribbean black cake is an annual baking ritual where the dry fruits are soaked in rum for months and baked with dark brown sugar. It is lavish with sugar and rum. Christstollen is a fifteenth century German cake low in sugar but has distinct rum infused fruits with little bread surrounding them. Italian panettone has more bread than fruits and the ingredients are not soaked in rum or brandy. Scottish Dundee cake stands out by using currants and sultanas and obviously the scotch whiskey takes over as the liqueur of choice. A classic British christmas cake has ingredients closest to the recipe we followed from Kerala, but it still missed the nutty flavor, heavy spices and burnt caramel taste that I was used to.
So we began baking our own cakes every year and the preparation started a month before Christmas. That’s when the currants, sultanas, dates and cherries are chopped and soaked in a pint of brandy. A strenuous baking day comes two weeks later and by then the spirit infused fruits develop an aroma of port wine.
Candied ginger, orange and lemon peels are then added to the mix. An assortment of spices produced in Kerala gives the cake its aroma. Small heaps of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, cocoa, nutmeg, dry ginger and a few drops of vanilla are added.
Creaming the butter by beating it with sugar and eggs is a critical step as it traps the air bubbles that leaven the cake in the oven. Burning sugar into caramel syrup is precision engineering but its hue and bittersweet taste justifies the effort.
Sifted dry ingredients-flour, spices and baking powder-are gradually combined with the creamed butter. Then the moist fruits and candied peels go in. Plenty of crushed cashew nuts and small chunks of candied papayas are added at the end.
Last year, it took about four hours to prepare the cake batter and at the end the kitchen was an indescribable mess. The cake went into the oven and we all gathered to watch it rise. In about thirty minutes, the sweet smell of cardamom and cinnamon filled the room and made the waiting even harder. Two more tantalizing hours later, the cake had risen and turned dark brown. The bamboo skewer came out clean and it was transferred to a cooling rack.
At 3:30 A.M, we made some black tea and cut a thick piece for ourselves. As the blade squeezed in, it released a fragrance that reminded me of my childhood. The buttery fruits clasped in sweet caramel bread melted in my mouth and offered no resistance. As I ate it, I started hearing a song from another time and my folks were in it. n
Jeomoan Kurian is one of the co-founders of puzha.com, the first online Malayalam literary magazine from Kerala. He currently lives in Irvine, California.
First published in Dec. 2015