I had my season’s first real taste of Christmas plum cake a couple of days ago, of all places, in a service apartment (allied with a fast-growing five star hotel chain) in Noida, on a personal errand. A chance query posed to the pastry chef of the hospitality establishment about Christmas preparations, on spotting a gingerbread house in the coffee shop yielded these delightful results.
As luck would have it, the rosy-cheeked pastry chef, who happens to hail from the Utttarakhand hills, had just baked his first batch of plum cake, and so there I was, literally the first recipient of the cake, fresh out of the oven, with a generous dose of rum, just as I love. Warm, moist, and soft and with that perfect dash of the good spirit, the one which is endorsed by Pirates of the Caribbean, which had me transported to my childhood days, but more on that later
But allow me to elaborate why I thought it was the real taste of Christmas. It was certainly not my first taste of a Christmas cake. I had already sampled a few plum cakes sent out by pastry chef (both home and hotel ones) friends in the industry. Plum cakes in Christmas season are dime a dozen now in any corner of India. From delivery apps to kirana stores to retail chains and larger supermarkets, everyone has a plum cake on their agenda, with Christmas around the corner.
But it is only that one cake or two, which make the cut, as far as fostering that magical feel of Christmas, you know, with bells pealing softly in the background and Christmas carols reminding you of the season of mistletoe and wine and Santa Claus. This plum cake in the Noida coffee shop most certainly evoked a Christmas festive feel, with its texture, appearance ( delicate dusting of icing sugar et al) and aroma. Of course, I usually like my plum cakes a darker caramelized shade, but I wasn’t complaining, at all.
It was also perhaps the spontaneity of the gesture, with the chef offering me the first bite of the freshly baked cake, which made it all so more festive, for isn’t generosity and bonhomie the hallmark of Christmas? Ironically, some plum cakes do not necessarily have plums, fresh or dried, but are made with fresh or dried fruits, and is often used interchangeably with the term fruit cake. The first plum cakes or Christmas cakes originated in 16th century in England as an oatmeal porridge first and then eggs, flour and butter were added to bind the mixture. Whether dark, light, spongy or harder, unleavened or otherwise, with frosting sugar or otherwise, variations of the Christmas cake existed across Europe. For example, a traditional Scottish Christmas cake, known as the Whisky Dundee, is a light crumbly cake with currants, raisins, cherries and Scotch whisky.
I have similar happy childhood memories around Christmas, which I alluded to earlier. This was in a remote tribal district of Odisha where my father served as a bureaucrat for a short stint. The posting of 3 years or so was made memorable by Mr John, his PA who was from Kerala, and his warm and gracious family. I was about four then but I just can’t forget the aroma of baking and the candied and dried fruits which were soaked in rum during Christmas.
It is an intrinsic piece of my subconscious, Mr John’s mother holding me in her lap and feeding me some Christmas cake, dotted with plump raisins, orange zest and cashews. There would be a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in the house and I would invariably get a Christmas gift of either a doll or a box of chocolates.
And then there was my friend Jean Pandian, from Delhi who now lives in the US. A home baker par excellence, her lavish Christmas dinners were oft-talked at home by my brother who played cricket with hers in a South Delhi locality where we lived. It was perhaps a good turn of events that I met Jean finally as a colleague in the media house I was working then, and more importantly got introduced to her plum cake!
Jean’s Christmas cake was the stuff warm fuzzy Christmas spirit is made of. Aromatic, dotted with plump black raisins, orange peel, nuts and tutti fruitti, soft-textured but with a texture enough to feel the bite and just drop dead delicious! She would start working on it a good couple of weeks and more, when the family would go shopping for dry fruits and candied peel and tutti fruitti in Sadar Bazar. Then the good stuff would be soaked in rum or brandy and as she often joked, the next important thing for her was “to hide the goodies from Reuben, her brother and Toffee her Cocker spaniel, and not necessarily in that order”.
While I would receive Jean’s cake wrapped in butter paper and invariably tied with a red satin ribbon a couple of days before Christmas, and it would be looked forward to with great anticipation by all of us at home. The tradition continued even when I moved to other metros on work, like Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and now in Hyderabad, to which locations she would courier her cake and sometimes even to my office address, as she felt that would be the perfect destination for me to receive it. As a result, even my colleagues would look forward to Jean’s Christmas cake. When she did visit our office in Ahmedabad while holidaying in the city, she was treated no less than a star by my colleagues!
Alas! Jean moved to Pennsylvania post her marriage and her cake is now the stuff dreams are made of. But when I think of Christmas spirit, it is Jean’s dark plum cakes, carrying all her love, care and attention which signal the “Hark now Hear, The Angels Sing, A King Was Born Today..and Man will Live Evermore Because of Christmas Day.”
Merry Christmas to you all, my dear readers!