A few days ago while waiting for my sandwich that I had ordered at Cedele, I found myself drooling over the cake counter (which I do on various occasions :)). I talk about this particular occasion since my eyes caught the moist, fruit laden christmas cake on display. The christmas cake that was so neatly kept on a golden-black box with a ribbon wrapped around it that it stood out hands down among all the mouth-watering treats. Yes the same carrot cake cream cheese frosting or the decadent chocolate cake that I have been unable to resist looking at in the past, now looked pale in front of it. More than all of this, that very christmas cake brought back a sudden rush of baking christmas cake at one of my neighbor Mrs. V’s home.
Now this is a long time ago, when I was perhaps 7-8 years old. So in the apartment opposite ours, there lived an old Catholic couple Mr. and Mrs. V (I call them old since at that time they were a lot older than my parents but still younger than my grand parents). Now Mrs. V was a little stern , always ensuring children learn their manners and are taught all about obedience, discipline and respect (No surprises she had retired as an English school teacher). So I was always cautious around her and did not joke with her much. She was fairly pleased with my manners that resulted in me being handed down a handsome bunch of homemade baked goods from her all the time. This brings me to the next fact about Mrs. V – She
was is by far one of the best, authentic home bakers that I am aware of. Her techniques and knowledge of ingredients that she spoke at length , are things I wish I had listened to more attentively, since I now do realise their true importance.
Talking about baking one of the fondest, sometimes hilarious yet poignant memories would be the christmas baking I had witnessed at her place. Now before the school break for christmas, I would be busy participating in the school’s christmas nativity play, singing carols during choir lessons, devouring plum pudding and chewy marsh mellows given out as school christmas treats, pestering Mum to buy me a big star to put at our door and then gaze at the light it would emit once it would be up and glowing. Then starting school vacation, I would go over to Mrs. V’s house and help her decorate her house. Mrs. V’s children and grand children would come visit her at christmas so she really would want to clean and decorate the house, cook up and bake an exhaustive list of items for the christmas celebration. Then finally it was time for her to bake the much awaited, much talked about and baked only for christmas, her christmas cake.
I can write at length about the hysteria that preparing and baking this cake would bring about in her house and among the neighbors, but I will try to highlight those instances that are still very vivid in my mind today:
- De-seeding the black raisins: Mrs. V being very particular about the quality of the fruit and nuts being used, checked and double-checked that the black raisins were well pitted and the seeds removed in all of them. Yes I am talking about NOT a handful of black raisins with seeds but a good 150 grams, that me and some other helpers of hers would religiously sit and de-seed. Yes I know you are saying “Buy seedless raisins, you morons!” but hey that’s the way it was done back then.
- Beating eggs: A bowl, a whisk and eggs is what we were given. Then whisk and whisk and whisk and whisk even more. Don’t stop. We would literally be challenging each other as to whose eggs beat well and form peaks good enough that would be suitable enough for Mrs. V’s baking. No numbness in the fingers or pain in the wrist would stop us. One tired hand, then switch over to the other hand and beat the eggs. Just keep beating.
- Chopping nuts: Mrs. V did not let the children chop nuts. Why ? I don’t know. Perhaps she thought it was dangerous to let children handle knives or she didn’t trust our chopping skills. Guess it would be a combination of the two. Whatever it was, I was in awe to see her chop almonds, walnuts, cherries, orange peel and then simultaneously nibble on the nuts and fruit she would give us over the whole time she was chopping.
- Whipping and folding the batter: Once everything was mixed , there was no electric mixer to our disposal to whip up and fold the cake batter. We would be given small amounts of the batter in little bowls to whip up as much as we could. Someone suggested using the blender but the frown and nod in disagreement Mrs. V exhibited was enough to not touch that question again. (Yes Mrs. V felt very strongly about hand beating. Call it the traditional way but think for whatever reason she loved the old method of whipping using only your hands I guess :))
- Baking in the oven: The cake is baking in the oven with all the awesomeness and love we had put in over the last few days. Mrs. V is frantic (literally) that it turns out right and all of us awaiting anxiously it is done so we relish a piece of the hard work that we put in. What a sight it was, that it still brings out the giggles in me :)
In all it was a fabulous experience – the excitement, the hysteria and thinking of all the things I did then that make me question “Why ?” today were all well worth it. So the emotional mix in my head staring at the cedele cake , got me enthusiastic enough to try to replicate the same process and bake this cake. (Okay perhaps not the entire list but I have tried dusting my rustic memory and getting my hands on all the ingredients I could.)
I hope everyone reading this is enjoying their christmas – decorating, baking, feasting, gifting (giving and receiving) and spending all the time with their family and friends. Wishing everyone a merry christmas and toasting to many more such times ahead.
250 grams all-purpose flour*
150 grams brown sugar**
200 grams unsalted butter
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of salt
50 ml dark rum to soak the nuts and then more to feed the cake
160 grams chopped walnuts
150 grams chopped almonds
250 grams mixed black raisins, golden raisins, cherries, currants and apricots (use in different proportions as it suits you. I am missing golden raisins and currants in this cake since the supermarket ran out of them I suppose)***
Zest of 1 orange (Or a chunk of candied orange peel)
*Can add in less or more flour compared to the quantity of nuts and fruit. I like to put in equal amounts of fruit + nut and butter+flour. So if the flour + butter = 500 gms then the nuts + fruit quantity will be approximately 500 grams. If you want it more cakey , then you may increase the quantity of flour
**Use less or more sugar as per taste. Ideally the fruit like raisins, sultanas, cherries, apricots are pretty sweet so I prefer less sugar. I am sure Mrs. V is frowning upon reading this :)
***A few days before you need to bake the cake, you will need to soak the orange zest, dried fruit and nuts in rum. I soaked the chopped almonds, walnuts and fruit in rum for 5 days. But 1 week, 2 weeks and even a month is better so that the fruit in drenched in the rum and mixes well in the cake batter once baked.
On the day of baking the cake:
Caramelize the brown sugar (I opted for this method to caramelize the sugar in particular the dry option. However beware that you need to work very quickly to whisk in the caramelized sugar with the butter and eggs else the sugar hardens very fast and becomes a huge sticky, hard mess).
Mix in the butter and eggs and whisk the caramelized sugar, butter and eggs. Next add in all the dry ingredients and mix. Add the soaked dry fruits and nuts and fold them in the batter. Mix well. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180 degree centigrade for 45 min until a tooth pick comes out clean. Cool and serve it. You can keep feeding the cake everyday with a little rum. (This cake will not last that long so I am not sure how I will feed it enough rum though :) )
The cake turned out moist with a rich, nutty-fruity flavour along with the golden-brown caramel color (mostly from the rum and sugar) , just like I had wanted it to be. The aroma of sweet rum in the cake with chewy apricots and raisins and nuts as I bit into the cake was really delightful. I nibbled on cake whole morning with a warm cup of tea. Indeed it was a beautiful Christmas morning!
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