Everyones favourite food at Christmas is cake,but baking one can lead to monumental mistakes.
Cake is the stuff of celebration. Is there any food around which,across the world,so much ritual and tradition has gathered? We have it at weddings. We have it at birthdays. And everybody has it at Christmas.
Christmastide is the most backward-looking of seasons. Carols are everywhere,filling the cold air with the harmonies dreamed up for medieval choirs or 1950s easy-listening singers. We mull wine like fourteenth-century peasants. We gather around decorated trees like Germanic tribesmen. As a new year dawns,we sing,or more often hum,a song in eighteenth-century Scots dialect none of us understands.
And we eat plum cake,which is,with its nuts,dried fruit and spices,the last lingering edible remnant of medieval Europe in our lives.
I love Christmas cake,but have never baked one. This isnt because baking scares me: it is the most rigorously scientific form of cooking,where andaaz doesnt work,where temperatures arent estimated by the height of a flame. It reminds me of chemistry practicals,and I was always a walking accident in the chem lab.
Its because baking Christmas cake scares me the most. Christmas is about family,and my memories of cake are family memories. And most stories are about disasters,with warnings and lessons about how difficult it is to bake fruitcake. Fruitcake has more sugar than other cakes,so the temperature has to be lower,about 150. If your oven is even slightly off,it burns on the outside before its done inside. The threat of burning is why it is frequently baked in brown or waxed paper.
The raisins and sultanas and other dried or candied fruit inside,meanwhile,are obvious visual markers of how light your batter was,and whether you got the proportions right. Go wrong,and it doesnt rise. Go really wrong,as my mother did once,and the batter rises even as the fruit sinks to the bottom. (If that ever happens to you,heres how my mother masterfully recovered the situation: she split it horizontally,and told guests shed baked two cakes,a spice cake and a particularly rich fruitcake.) Then theres the time my grandmother,squinting at the eggs,decided they looked small,and that wed better add an extra dozen,with the result that that a batch of 20 or so cakes tasted pretty much like a raisin omelette.
When my grandmothers got things wrong,the error was of a scale otherwise associated with governmental screw-ups. That was because,like many others,they rarely baked Christmas cakes at home. You would make a cake mixture: flour,butter,sugar and dried fruit in near equal proportions,along with about two dozen eggs for each kilo of flour; cream the butter and sugar,adding the flour and eggs a little at a time; and finally,put in the dried fruit and nuts,which should have been soaked in rum or brandy beforehand,and then dipped in flour. To bake the mixture though,you would go to a bakers,and negotiate the loan of an oven,so that you had dozens of cakes,enough to send to all your friends; I remember my grandmother standing with an immensely long wooden spoon in front of a giant oven in a small Ludhiana bakery,checking doneness,and declaring of one that looked burnt that shed send it to a colleague she disliked.
As befits something that families make,each family does it slightly differently,puts in something extra. I wont tell you what mine does,in case I want to impress someone someday with its subtle brilliance. Sometimes it is dates; sometimes cashews,like Hearschs in Bandra. Given the whole chemistry-exam nature of the exercise,that changes the character considerably.
Here,in Calcutta,its easy to see that. Nowhere else in the world,surely,is the Christmas cake so ubiquitous at this time. In England and America,plum puddings rule; in Europe,stollen or sachertorte. Not even in Goan-inflected Bombay are fruit cakes everywhere as they are in Calcutta,being sold on sidewalks by Christmas-tree and tinsel hawkers,by the neighbourhood biscuitwallah,little square things with plastic holly pressed into the top. Walk into Imperial Bakers at New Market,and youre surrounded by cubes of waxed paper to the ceiling,some with the top layer peeled away to show almonds in the familiar pattern of Dundee cake. Theres a confusing price list: standard fruitcake,rich plum cake,special fruitcake,butter fruitcake,royal fruitcake,bingo fruitcake,light fruitcake,Dundee,English. Ask for details,and you get a scornful look. You look 30,you should know by now.
So buy some good fruitcake,and hear the angels as you eat it. Though be warned: store-bought cake goes far too easy on the alcohol,and rum or brandy should really be in there. But theres an easy trick; buy the cake early and pour a quarter of Old Monk on top. If nothing else,it keeps the cake fresh for ages. Even,apocryphally,centuries. Though if you do it right,youll never stop eating long enough to find out.