Mumbai has its gateaux and mawa cakes; and housewives who add fizz to old recipes. And there is an upstart in town: gajar halwa cheesecake.
The early morning air in some of the oldest neighbourhoods of Mumbai carries an unmistakable whiff of cinnamon. Follow the trail and you will find yourself at the doorstep of one of the handful of Irani restaurants that remain in the city. Lined up by the counter are stacks of freshly baked mawa cakes dense,milky buttons that look like muffins but are not,and are as much part of the flavours of Mumbai as vada pav and cutting chai.
Mawa cakes,which are rolled out in hundreds from small bakeries,are the perfect breakfast accompaniment for the average Mumbaikar. The milkiness comes from the mawa (reduced milk,a common ingredient in Indian sweets) which replaces butter in the recipe. Dunk the milky cake into a glass of chai,the spicy flavours of cinnamon and nutmeg balance the sweetness of the tea,and you are ready for the day. All for less than Rs 10 a piece.
The cake is not as much part of our culinary DNA as barfi-halwa-sandesh,but we have been baking for a while,says Ananda Solomon,corporate chef,Taj Premium Hotels. The technique was limited to baking meats. During hunting expeditions,the kings men would bake meat in a shallow,covered pit with wood placed around it and set on fire. It was only with the influence of Persian traders around the 13th century that locals got a taste of naankhatais and date rolls. A few centuries on,when parts of India turned into colonies ruled by the French,the Portuguese and the English cakes,flans and puddings were introduced. Mumbai is a port city and it was always a traders hub,inviting foreign influences to its cuisine. The Portuguese rule brought about a sea change in the cultural milieu of the city. Indians,in charge of their rulers kitchens,honed the art of baking and eventually,as the Christian population of the city grew,the concept of cakes too began to come home, says Solomon.
The city took to cake,but on its own terms. One assumes that the lack of authentic ingredients made our ancestors look at local produce for replacement. Butter must have made way for mawa and Indian spices like nutmeg and cinnamon became the common flavours, says Tirandaz P Irani,third-generation owner of 50-year-old Yazdani Bakery,one of the oldest Irani cafes.
That would explain why housewife Agnes Fernandes stirs in semolina and desiccated coconut into the batter when she bakes the rich,moist traditional Baath cake for Christmas,a recipe she inherited from her mother. Since food is affected by the weather,culture and local produce of the region,one assumes that Indian Christians,due to unavailability of refined flour,replaced it with semolina and added coconut,an essential element of the local cuisine. The recipe,over decades,became a part of the Christian tradition, says chef Joy Bhattacharya,executive chef,Trident Nariman Point,Mumbai. (Bhattacharya continues to fuse West and East in his confections: black pepper and gajar halwa cheesecakes. The spicy,crunchy texture of the peppercorn complements the texture and flavour of the cheesecake, he says. Gajar halwa? A way to woo those who shy away from cheesecakes.)
By the late 1960s,the city was dotted with bakeries equipped with wood ovens. Housewives would bring in cake batter and pay a nominal charge to have them baked. Cakes eventually became a reason for any celebration. Allan Pereira,the owner of the popular patisserie and restaurant,Candies,recounts the early days of his father Cajetan Pereiras cake business. MacRonnels was one of the first cake shops in the city. Inspired by the wedding cakes of the West,he started icing the cakes with butter-sugar icing because the concept of whipped cream was still new, says the 57-year-old. We started with simpler designs such as TV sets and then progressed to cartoon characters.
All this while,pastry shops at five-star hotels were a step ahead. It is they who first introduced the black forest and pineapple flavours,which continue to be the most popular options even today, says AN Malhotra,one of the partners of the citys popular Gaylord restaurant,which opened in 1956. Though it started a dedicated patisserie and the first show bakery (where customers could see freshly baked products being brought out of the oven) only in 1992,Gaylord always had a small counter of cakes and pastries. We were known for our coffee and the pastries made for excellent accompaniment. And since a significant section of Mumbais population is vegetarian especially the affluent lot vegetarian cakes were available as early as the 1970s, he says.
In households,and in the hands of ingenious housewives,the confectionery continued to change. Regular sugar was a substitute for caster sugar (simple,grind it in a mixer),soda bicarbonate for baking powder,chocolate bars for baking/dark chocolate. Bandra housewife Ronnie DSouza,who can bake seven different kinds of cakes,uses fresh cream instead of butter when she bakes a vanilla cake. Thirty-four-year-old Shanti Crasto loves gooey chocolate cake but that does not stop her from preparing her own orange cake on special occasions. I add Mirinda. It works, she says with a laugh. The popular bread-and-butter pudding that you may spot on many restaurant menus is a home-grown recipe. We could never make the British pudding but we ended up with this, says DSouza. Made by soaking stale bread in milk and adding sugar,spices,eggs and butter before putting it in the oven,it makes for a nutritious meal without letting food go waste.
So there you are: two cake cultures that have lived alongside each other. As the famous Belgian patisserie Debailleul,with stores across 13 other countries,launches its first outlet in Mumbai next month,Crasto is looking forward to making chocolate brownies. The recipe has a twist: the butter is replaced with curd.