December 19, 2021 6:30:19 am
One of my favourite childhood memories is a smell, a most haunting scent —the sweet, alcohol-laced fragrance of this incredible fruitcake made by Shashi Gupta, who lived next door to our home in Delhi. Every November Auntie would begin soaking dried and candied fruits in rum or brandy to make kilos and kilos of fruitcakes that would fill her house as the weeks progressed, all to be given away to friends and neighbours as Christmas gifts. I would watch Auntie with rapt attention, and some lucky times, I would get to help her while she made the cakes and feel most fortunate about that happening.
Robin her son and I were best friends and remain very close still. Our friendship began as we were both the youngest in our homes, and both very fond of eating home cooked food, which was a departure from what each of our siblings loved. This also made us find a soft spot in our parents’ minds and in those of the parents of the other. We found wonderful traditions in the home of the other that were not commonplace in that of the other. His was a home with a Baniya father and a Syrian Christian mother from Kerala. Mine had a UP Kayastha father and a Punjabi Brahman mother with parents from what is modern-day Pakistan. Both sets of parents had love marriages in an India where those were very uncommon. Both mothers had chosen to be homemakers and were great at what they did and did that with inimitable and peerless dignity, grace, and charm. We adored each other’s moms, and we enjoyed being in their company and at their side, watching and gawking, learning, and finding shelter – all while also enjoying delicious foods and happy conversations, and learning about our familial lore and legend. I am quite certain that Shashi Auntie’s fruitcake was one of the most fundamental reasons that Robin and I became friends and remained close and dear friends.
When I moved to New York City, as soon as the temperature dropped and the leaves began to fall, I developed an insatiable craving for Shashi Auntie’s fruitcake. The cold temperature and almost equally cold way people in the US live and share for the most part, a sharp contrast with how we do so in India, made me homesick for Christmas in India. Of course, Charlie and his family, both parents and their parental units, took me in as their own, and our friends always opened hearth and home with warm welcome.
But something never was quite the same, despite the much richer festive look and feel that our Christmas decorations and celebrations had in New York (NY). I missed the simpler feel of the Gupta household’s marking of the holiday, I missed my mothers’ bestie, Prabha Manchanda, one of my idols, and dearest Aunt’s singing of carols, and the energy and enthusiasm with which she would mark Christmas season, despite not being Christian. It was this celebration of another religion’s traditions, and the love poured into it, that made me homesick for Christmas in India and this incredible fruitcake, It wasn’t too long after my move to the US in 1993 that I got Shashi Auntie to share her recipe and started baking them to give away to my friends and colleagues in my new home in NY.
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Two of my closest friends, Nitin and Mamta, ate it with such gusto that I decided to always have some on-hand to offer them as a treat when they visited. Wrapped in cognac-soaked muslin, dusted with superfine/castor sugar, wrapped in plastic wrap/cling film and then aluminum foil, and stored in a snug airtight plastic container, the cake would last up to a year so long as I replenished the cognac, sugar, and coverings every time I removed a slice or two. The longer it aged, the higher proof it became, making our visits evermore spirited as the year progressed!
When Charlie and I moved to our farm in Upstate NY, Shashi Auntie’s fruitcake became even more of a staple. We charmed many neighbours and strangers alike with the cake and found fans for Auntie’s fruitcake in all lucky enough to taste some. Now back in New Delhi, Charlie and I start soaking the fruits in the fall so that come holiday time, we can make delightfully decadent high-spirited fruitcakes to eat, give, and serve throughout the season; this recipe yields three cakes: one to save, one to give, and one to sample! While we always use good cognac in our fruitcake, you can feel free to substitute less-expensive brandy or rum if you prefer.
Ingredients (makes 3 loaves)
- 1 lb/455 g mixed dried and/or candied fruits (like apricots, candied citron, candied lemon peel, candied orange peel, candied or dried cherries, craisins, currants, dates, figs, and raisins)
- 8 oz/225 g mixed toasted nuts (like almonds, cashews, macadamia, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts)
- 1 3/4 cup/420 ml cognac
- 1 1/4 lbs/570 g unsalted butter at room temperature
- 5 2/3 cups/720 g all-purpose/plain flour plus extra for dusting pan
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 8 large eggs
- 1 orange, zested and juiced
- 1 tbsp dark or black-strap molasses/treacle
- 1 tbsp orange marmalade
- 1/4 tsp almond extract
- 1/4 tsp orange flower water
- 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups/250 g light or dark brown sugar
- 1 1/4 cups/250 g granulated sugar
- 3 tbsp superfine/castor sugar
- Place the dried fruits, nuts, and 1 cup/240 ml of the cognac in a bowl or gallon-size/3.8-L resealable plastic bag. Set aside at room temperature for at least 1 week or up to several months (continue to top off the amount of cognac so the fruits continue to sweeten in their alcohol brine)
- Heat the oven to 350°F/180°C/gas 4. Grease a 5-by-9-inch/14-by-23-cm loaf pan with 1 tbsp butter. Add 2 tbsp flour and shake to coat the bottom and sides. Set aside.
- Whisk the flour, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl and set aside. Whisk the eggs with the orange juice and zest, molasses/treacle, marmalade, and almond, orange, and vanilla extracts, and set aside.
- Beat the remaining butter with the brown sugar and granulated sugar in a stand mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer) on low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and creamy, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to low. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture followed by 1/2 of the egg mixture. Repeat, ending with the last 1/3 of the flour mixture, scraping the bowl between additions as necessary. Mix in the cognac-soaked fruit and nuts (leave any excess liquid behind) and then scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
- Place the pan in the oven and bake the cake for 1 hour. Rotate the cake, reduce the heat to 300°F/150°C/gas 2, and continue to bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the center of the cake resists light pressure, about 30 minutes longer. Check the cake occasionally—if it looks like it is browning too quickly, loosely tent it with aluminum foil. Remove the cake from the oven and cool the cake completely in the pan.
- Place 3 large pieces of muslin (large enough to completely wrap around the cake; you can also use several layers of cheesecloth in place of muslin) in a bowl and pour the remaining 3/4 cup/180 ml cognac over it. Run a paring knife around the edges of each pan to loosen the cake. Turn the cake out onto a plate. Wrap the cognac-soaked muslin around the cake so all surfaces, edges, and sides are covered. Sprinkle the top of the cake with superfine/castor sugar and then wrap tightly in plastic wrap/cling film followed by a layer of aluminum foil. Let the cake cure in the refrigerator for 1 week (or up to 1 year). Before serving, let the cake sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes before slicing. Every time you remove a slice, resoak the muslin in 1/4 cup/60 ml fresh cognac, sprinkle with another 3 tbsp sugar, and rewrap in fresh sheets of plastic wrap/cling film and aluminum foil. If storing more than 1 week, be sure to soak and replace the muslin on a weekly basis.
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