There’s Petha in Your Slice

There’s Petha in Your Slice

And tutti frutti too. Nowhere else but in India does the cake get this exotic,says Chef.

And tutti frutti too. Nowhere else but in India does the cake get this exotic,says Chef.

The ancestor of the modern-day Christmas cake was a humble stodgy gruel made during the days of Early Christianity. It was known as the Christmas porridge or Frumenty,and made with milk and ground wheat,almost like the millet-based Italian polenta. Over the years,dried fruit,nuts and spices (all expensive and rare ingredients) were added to it. Dried fruit came from all over Europe and sweet spices came via Persia from India: cinnamon and cloves,cardamom and nutmeg. So only the very wealthy could afford to make it. Eggs and butter were added to make the mixture richer,and sometimes even finely chopped meat was stirred in.

In the mid-19th century,with the invention of raising agents and eventually baking powder,and the removal of meat from the batter,we arrive somewhere near the modern cake we all know and love.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the first Christmas cake was made in India. I would hazard a guess that the first cakes came in from Europe after many turbulent weeks at sea. As the East India Company was set up in the early 18th century,and as the British settlements in India grew,baking Christmas cakes became a regular ritual.


The biggest difference in the way the Indian Christmas plum cake has evolved is in the ingredients. Many candied things are added to cakes — candied peel,glace cherries,candied ginger,even figs — but which Englishwoman would have imagined ash gourd in a plum cake? Petha or candied gourd is one of the most common sweets of India. It is added,in a finely chopped form,to the plum cake mixture. It works quite well but makes for a completely different texture. (Aside: the typical English Christmas cake is also packed with soaked dried currants. But I’ve never found proper currants in India.)

The second impostor is the Indian tutti frutti. These tiny diced and coloured chunks that are sprinkled over ice creams and other desserts,from what my friends tell me,are an Indian childhood favourite. Tutti frutti is an Italian confection and translates into “all fruit”. Many fruits and variations of fruits can be used to make it as long as they are firm and will candy or dry well — mangoes,pineapples and papayas,or fruit peels.

Tutti frutti comes in two types: one that’s relatively dry and another that is used more as a sauce or topping. The Indian tutti frutti is usually made with candied papaya. It comes in four artificial colours — red,green,yellow and orange — and is flavourless,unlike the Italian tutti frutti. We Brits would never put petha or tutti frutti in our cakes but I can understand why it caught on here. They are both simple and cheap,and part of the theatrics of the traditional Christmas cake.

Fuss-free Plum Cake Recipe

A day before you bake,mix together 800g mixed dried fruit (raisins,sultanas,currants,dates,apricots and prunes),100g chopped mixed peel,150g chopped glace cherries and 100g chopped walnuts,with 200ml of red wine (port or sherry will do too). Cover and leave overnight.  

Preheat your oven to 150°C. Grease an 8” cake tin. Line the bottom and sides with baking paper.

Sieve together 250g plain flour,¼ tsp salt and ½ tsp each of mixed spice,ground cinnamon,dried ginger powder and ground nutmeg. 

In a large mixing bowl,cream 200g butter,200g dark brown or mascavado sugar and 2 tbsp treacle. If you can’t find treacle,throw in another 2tbsp of brown sugar. Add 1 tbsp marmalade,a few drops of vanilla essence and the zest of an orange. Beat and keep creaming until light and fluffy. Slowly add to the mixture four lightly beaten eggs,a little at a time,until all the ingredients are well beaten together.  

Slowly stir in alternate spoons of soaked fruit and the flour mixture. Once the ingredients are mixed but not overbeaten,spoon the mixture into the tin and make a slight hollow in the centre. Bake for three hours and then test with a skewer. If it doesn’t come out clean,bake for another hour,testing every 20 minutes until done.

Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for around 15 minutes,then turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool. Once it’s cool,make a few holes in the cake with a skewer and pour 4tbsp of brandy,rum or whiskey,and allow the cake to soak it. To store the cake,wrap in foil and place in an airtight tin or plastic container,holes side up.

—Chef Shane Kenworthy

It all began here

As stories go,this one takes the cake. The first Christmas cake in Kerala,they say,was baked one December day in Thalasserry,127 years ago. A Brit called Francis Brown asked a local baker,Mambally Bapu,to bake a cake and gave a basic recipe. Bapu,who had earlier fermented bread with local toddy,added cinnamon to his creation this time. The ochre shaving was possibly the first indigenous flavour in Kerala’s cake.


(The writer is a British chef and consultant based in Kolkata)