The cake was never part of our culinary DNA,but it has shed a few ingredients,gained a few and become a dessert worthy of our much-indulged sweet tooth. How the cake became Indian.
In fragrant cake factories and coffee shops,pastry chefs trained in the European art of patisserie will talk in mock-distress about the bastardisation of the cake. They will speak of the great Indian cake wrecks,delving under the eau de vie-spiked layers of the German Black Forest kirschtorte (cherry cake) to expose the misguided desi construct. Its for this reason that I wasnt stocking the black forest cake,but everyone who walked in wanted one,so I had to make the Indianised version, says Mathew Thomas,a former advertising executive who plunged headlong into the baking business after a course in pastry and breads in Paris. Thomas runs Ma Baker,a little bakery in Frazertown,Bangalore,and makes special Christmas cakes to order,including the traditional plum cake with fondant,steamed pudding with brandy butter and panettone,a Milanese Christmas bread enriched with butter and dried fruit. Today,only five-star hotels make good Black Forest cakes. The ones you get in streetside bakeries in India are essentially sponges soaked in sugar syrup and covered in non-dairy cream and cocoa bits,with a few cherries here and there, he says.
We in India have a ready excuse to botch a cake. It was never ours to begin with. So how did something that was once so foreign to Indian culinary tradition become a staple snack taking pride of place in the stack of double roti and fruit buns at tea stalls and a dessert worthy of our much-indulged sweet tooth? How did the cake become Indian?
Joe Manavalan,a former pastry chef with the Oberoi group of hotels whose Bangalore-based baking unit,Painted Platters,now supplies to hotels and corporate firms,remembers his first tryst with the black forest cake. I was in seventh grade when the old Sweet Chariot café on Brigade Road in Bangalore introduced the Black Forest pastry at Rs 3 a piece. It was a rage. Of course,it was nothing like what Black Forest cake should be,but no one knew that, he says. These cakes of questionable taste and composition enjoyed good repute,riding on the naiveté of the pre-globalisation era,but the baking practices fostered by a poor economy have lasted into the 21st century. Today,small-time bakers,who cant tell a genoise from a gateau,confess to pocket-friendly substitutions: butter for cream and Dalda for butter,cocoa powder for chocolate and cashews for almonds in marzipan,and who knows what else.
In older bakeries,where British legacies like the pound cake,the rich fruitcake and the Swiss roll still retain their names,the wood-fired ovens are gone,and mechanisation and preservatives stab at the quality traditional bakers achieved with much toil and technique. But through all this the cake has emerged a cultural winner,carving itself a place in our kitchens,our birthday parties,and our everyday lives,right up there with coffee and conversations.
In India,substitutions in the traditional recipe are often dictated by cultural preferences. The eggless cake may be sacrilege to a French baker,but is a necessary adaptation even in five-star hotels in India. Similarly,Thomas says he often has to steer clear of alcohol,traditionally used to moisten and preserve the cake. Meanwhile,native ingredients like spices,coconut,curd and ghee have found their way into the European cake,the familiar flavours cavorting with unknown textures. At the ubiquitous Iyengar bakeries dotting south India,for instance,one can grab a very Indian honey cake a sugar-dunked sponge rolled in desiccated coconut,with a jam layer on top for Rs 10. The perfect carb-high for labourers who swarm these eateries in the evenings.
Now,upscale patisseries are carefully blending Indian flavours with traditional pastries for the connoisseur. Avijit Ghosh,pastry chef at The Leela Palace Kempinski,Bangalore,bakes Philadelphia cheesecake with gulab jamun and serves chocolate cake with saffron crème brûlée. Ive served jalebis layered with lemon soufflé and rasmalai rolled up inside chocolate mousse, he says. While the well-travelled guest at a five-star hotel might appreciate the tasteful inventions,even traditional favourites like baked cheesecake fail to interest the average customer,says Manavalan. I think it makes them think of Amul cheese and who would want to eat that in a cake? People are okay with chilled cheesecake,though, says the chef,who swears no one in Bangalore had heard of tiramisu till the 1990s. Even today,his delicious champagne and berry mousse is greeted with the reluctance that alcoholic cakes invariably evoke. They think they will get drunk on it. One has to explain that when cooking with alcohol,most of it evaporates,leaving only the flavour, he says.
Manavalan still bakes his Christmas fruitcake the traditional way,soaking the dried fruit in rum well ahead in October,but he replaces 25 per cent of the butter with ghee the way his mother has always made it,believing it adds flavour to the cake. In Mangalore,Vilma Pais,a specialist in rich plum cakes,who bakes at home and takes orders for Catholic weddings,christenings and Christmas,says she has found a quicker and easier way of making the cake. Its not an easy cake to make. One has to make caramel of the right consistency or the fruits would just fall to the bottom. When the cake is hot from the oven,I pour the rum and the brandy on it and seal it with cellophane to set, she says. The cake is intensely flavourful and aromatic,the taste lingering in the mouth long after one has eaten it.
The rich plum cake is the most popular Christmas cake in India today. How did it originate? Perhaps it came from the British plum pudding,traditionally steamed and then flambéed with brandy, says Thomas. The pudding itself had no plums to begin with,and likely came from a savoury meat broth made for Christmas,losing most of the meat except the beef suet which is still a key ingredient in the process. Mangalore is dotted with British-era bakeries where,to this day,the plum cake is the fastest moving thing on the menu. At Vas Bakery,established in 1905 by Emmanuel Vas,his grandson and present owner Bryan Vas shows us around the semi-mechanised baking unit. I was told that my grandfather set up the bakery to cater to the Germans and the British who lived here at the time. For the Protestant missionaries in town,our bakery was the only one from which they could pick up cake and bread, he says. The bakery,which goes through 300 kg of cake in three days,has altered recipes to suit modern tastes and baking methods.
At St Josephs Bakery on Falnir Road,Mangalore,Salvadore Fernandes says the demand for his ghee cakes is catching up with the demand for plum cakes. The bakery,established in 1936,is one of the few ones with an old-fashioned oven,fired by nettlewood and coconut shells. It now stocks readymade idli,dosa,roti and parantha,as well as groceries in addition to cakes. Manavalan has a theory about how most of the old department stores in India started out as bakeries. Good bread is always the talk of the town. People will come every day to buy it. Slowly you will start stocking flour,sugar and other groceries, he says.
As Elizabeth Abraham,a Mangalorean housewife who enjoys baking homey pastries and chocolate roulades for her grandchildren,says,The British came,they laid railway tracks,they taught us their language,they gave us bread and cake,and our lives were never the same again.