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Crazy about cake

I’ve just completed six years here in Calcutta. The first year I was in India I was in Delhi for Christmas and, let me tell you, there was no festive spirit there whatsoever. Calcutta on the other hand has a totally different story to tell.

I think everyone in Calcutta joins in with the festivities of the boro din and puts creed and religion aside for the day. The queue outside Victoria Memorial and the zoo is a thing of great entertainment for me. As is Calcutta’s fascination with cakes and pastries. The queue on Park Street from December 23 to buy cakes from Flurys is an amazing sight, which brings me to what this piece is really about — Calcutta and its passionate obsession with the humble cake.

Everyone in Calcutta will have their favourite cake shop. Nahoums for their brownies and their patties; my favourite things there are their savoury biscuits. Flurys for their rum balls and their chocolate boats and obviously those festive favourites, mine still being their dry cakes and their chocolates. The queue outside Flurys on Park Street during Christmas really fascinates me and I’m sure almost all of those people will have their own stories to tell. Both Nahoums and Flurys have been around for the better part of a century.

(I still feel quite mushy when it comes to Flurys at Christmas — we re-launched Flurys on December 23. I could easily write this whole piece about them, maybe some other day!)

Next come the relatively recent ones like Kookie Jar. They really have gotten under the skin of Calcutta during the past 15 years or so and have created their own legacy and presence in a short period of time — at least as far as Calcutta’s history is concerned. My favourites are, again, their dry cakes like the marbled chocolate cakes and their cookies.

I still hear people telling their own stories and reminisce about the old Firpos bakery and that of the Great Eastern Hotel. Places with wonderful histories. Something every Calcuttan should be proud of.

A Christmas cake at Flurys. Picture by Rashbehari Das

The cake isn’t such a difficult item to pull off as long as you have a little patience and an oven. Another great story I have about Flurys before the renovation is about the main baking oven they had. There used to be two, but one dated back to around 1905 when it was imported from England and came to Flurys from the bakery of Firpos much later. Initially it was wood-fired, two decks, both about 10-ft deep and about six-ft wide and was later upgraded to gas. That oven could tell a tale or two. The man that used to operate it was almost blind and was the third generation entrusted with it. Amazing, really, and something that will never happen, ever again. New ovens would never last that long.

I’ve been baking breads and cakes for most of my professional life and have to say that the baker really is the true master. It’s much more about love, care, intelligence and science than the rest of the kitchen, with far more problems that can happen, be it during making or the baking. Faults that have to be mastered. The baker in France is still one of the most adored and worshipped people in society today.

This brings me to that festive favourite — the Christmas cake. Now, the Christmas cake as we know it comes from two customs that became one around 1870 in Victorian England. Originally there was a humble porridge, that goes way back to the beginnings of Christianity. Then there was a fine cake made with the finest milled wheat-flour, which was baked only in Great Houses, as not many people had ovens back in the 14th Century.

People used to eat a sort of porridge on Christmas Eve. It was a dish to line the stomach after a day’s fasting, which people used to observe for Christmas Eve. Gradually, they began to put spices and dried fruits into the porridge to make it a special dish for Christmas. Later, it was turned into a pudding that they would tie in a cloth and dunk it into a large cauldron of boiling water and boil for many hours. This is the Christmas Pudding that we all know.

Much later we added butter, replacing the oatmeal with flour, added eggs to hold it together better and this became boiled plumcake. Boiled plum pudding and boiled fruitcake continued to exist side by side depending on which ingredients were used.

For Easter, the upper classes would make a special rich fruitcake with a topping of what we now call marzipan or almond paste, called a simnel cake. A similar cake was baked for the Christmas festivities. These represented the exotic spices of the East, and the gifts of the Wise Men.

Christmas, for me, just wouldn’t be the same without all those smells of richly-soaked dried fruits and spices and I know that many people would feel the same. So, lastly, merry Christmas to all and a very happy and prosperous new year for 2008!

Break the rules

Here is a relatively simple, moist, light and fruity cake for Christmas that breaks some of the rules but you’ll still love me for it all the same! Firstly, preheat your oven to 150° C. Grease an eight-inch round or a seven-inch square cake tin and line the bottom and sides with baking paper. Sieve together 225g plain flour, one-fourth tsp salt, half tsp mixed spice and half tsp ground cinnamon into a bowl.

In a large mixing bowl, cream together 200g butter and 200g brown sugar and then mix two tbsp treacle, one tbsp marmalade and a few drops of vanilla essence till light and fluffy.

Next, you will need four lightly beaten eggs. Add the eggs a little at a time into the cream-sugar mixture, adding a tbsp of flour mixture with the last amount. Fold in the remaining flour mixture till well blended and then add 800g mixed dried fruit, 100g chopped mixed peel, 150g chopped glace cherries and 100g chopped walnuts. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and make a slight hollow in the centre. Bake for three hours and then test with a skewer. If not ready, bake for up to another hour, testing every 20 minutes till the skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool. Once cool, make a few holes in the cake with a skewer and pour over 4 tbsp of brandy. Let the brandy soak into the cake. To store the cake, wrap in foil and place in an airtight tin or plastic container, holes side up. For a rich and moist cake, spoon over a few tablespoons of brandy every week till you are ready to ice and decorate it. Lastly either eat as it is or decorate. For a traditional Christmas cake, you should cover it with marzipan and then with royal icing and decorate with Christmas ornaments.

Which is your favourite Christmas cake? Tell

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