I was born and brought up in a Christian family. We lived in a small town with an even smaller Church-going community. Christmas traditions began in our households with the first nip in the November air. My mother pulled out an old handwritten recipe book from the bookshelf. Brandished with pen and paper, my parents decided the quantity of traditional Christmas cake to be baked that year. They carefully jotted down the quantity of ingredients. Then they made a trip to the local grocer to buy all the fruit peels, raisins, nuts, and spices. This was the beginning of an aromatic journey proclaiming Christmas was around the corner.
The chopping of the peels, petha, and dry fruit was an arduous task because the sugary fruits were sticky and slipped on the knife. Once the peels were ready, a rum bottle appeared on the table. My mother soaked the peels in rum and a dark, rich smell slowly permeated the house. Meanwhile, spices were ground and bottled. For me, the fragrance of all spices, particularly ginger and cinnamon, is always reminiscent of childhood.
My parents made more preparations, including booking a date at the local bakery in mid-December. The night before we had to go to the bakery was a flurry of activity as we packed soaked fruits, dry material, eggs, and much more into an aluminum trunk. At the bakery, a man helped mix the ingredients in the correct proportion and sequence in an enormous cauldron. Caramel was prepared, orange marmalade used, and a few secret ingredients added as he stirred it all into a smooth batter with a long-handled ladle. Christmas cake recipes are usually passed on from one generation to the next and are guarded as a family secret. In small communities, the color, texture, and taste of the Christmas cake were a matter of pride and comparison.
We used newspaper to line the tin molds and placed name labels with sequential numbers on the cake batter for easy identification. In bakeries, 3-4 families got their cakes baked on the same day in the same kiln. Eventually, the kiln was preheated, and the baker transferred the thick cake batter into 40-50 cake molds to be baked in one big batch. It was an hour or more of waiting in the warm, aromatic confines of the bakery. A day at the bakery on a cold North Indian, foggy, winter day resulted in muffin and cream roll treats for the children. Imagine the delight of a child entering the bakery shop from the inside and choosing favorite baked goodies.
When it was time to get the cake out of the kiln, the families would once again stand guard, recounting the cake loaves with hawk-eyed precision. We waited for the cake to cool down and gazed at it with joy, greed, and a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes, my mother would not be satisfied with the color or aroma. After all, it was an annual tradition to serve the perfect Christmas cake.
The trip to the bakery ended with loaves of decadent Christmas cake packed into our aluminum truck and taken home with great care. When we opened the trunk at home, the decadent aroma of rum-infused, rich plum cake pervaded every corner. My mother handpicked a less-perfect-looking loaf and sliced it up for tasting and discussion. Sometimes, she would be ecstatic, sometimes a tad disappointed with how the cake turned out. Each year, she improvised the recipe until she stopped getting it baked at the kiln. The efforts were too much; the children had moved out; commercially produced plum cakes were available in stores and online.
Now, we don’t follow this tradition of kiln-baked cakes. We order from specialty bakeries and from home chefs. Ample recipes, including the secret ingredients of traditional baking, are available on the Internet. Christmas cakes are becoming more popular than ever but the production is more commercial. These cakes, however, cannot replicate the Christmas aroma that I have known since my childhood.
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