Santa Claus may be busy making his list (and checking it twice), but if you want to get that Christmas cake just right, you’ll have to be naughty not nice. For how will you get the perfect sweet and spicy fruit cake without a timely dose of booze? “In most East Indian homes, the fruit for Christmas cake is soaked a year in advance,” reveals Curran Mathews, an Amboli-based baker, who’s got a jarful of raisins soaked in rum stashed away for his cakes. “Every time I use the fruit from the jar, I refill it,” reveals the 20-year-old.
But don’t worry about being late, says the hotel management student, a month is plenty to get the fruits plumped up and soaked right. Besides, if you’re following the Goan tradition, you’re right on time. “Goans prefer to avoid soaking fruit in the monsoon because they’re afraid it might get fungus,” says baker Rebecca Vaz, talking of her community. “They kickstart the process right at the end of monsoon,” adds Vaz.
Nigella Lawson’s recipe recommends bourbon or brandy, but Mathews and Vaz both prefer rum. “Rum is a much cheaper option and offers a more deliciously sweet flavour than brandy. I guess that’s why it’s the more popular choice in most East Indian homes,” says Mathews, who began baking with his mother as a teenager and has already gained quite a reputation among the community.
“My wedding cakes are pretty popular,” says the baker, brimming with pride. Although the wedding cakes he makes are usually fruit cakes too, what sets these apart is the amount of spice he adds. “Christmas cakes are mildly spiced, with subtler hints of nutmeg,” he reveals. While tradition demands a plum cake for Christmas, the Mathews prefer coconut cake for the season. “We’re a bit tired of plum cake, to be honest. And we’ve started a new tradition,” he says with a laugh.
Santacruz-based Vaz also likes to challenge tradition when it comes to Christmas cakes. “I like to play around with marzipan, it just makes the plum cake looks so much prettier and gives the cake a nice crunchy crust,” says the baker, who set up The Baking Tray in 2008. “But most people in the community continue to bake a large portion of the traditional fruit cake. They make a host of other sweets too, and at Christmas time, they slice up the cake and set it prettily on a tray with the other sweets and distribute it among neighbours and friends,” says Vaz.
If you’re willing to take a crack at making Christmas cake at home, you might as well go all out and attempt the mixed-fruit cake rather than the simpler, more traditional plum cake, which contains only raisins. “For fruit cake you need to add ingredients such as bitter papaya and orange peel, which are readily available in the market, just to cut the sweetness. You can also add glazed cherries, cashews, and walnuts. But don’t soak cashews and walnuts in the alcohol - they get soft and soggy. That’ll change the taste completely,” advises Mathews.
Curran Mathews’ recipe for Plum Cake
* 250 g butter
* 250 g powdered sugar
* 250 g refined flour
* 5 eggs
* 1 1/4 tsp baking powder
* 250 g raisins or sultanas soaked in 1 cup rum or wine and drained
* 20 ml caramel colour
* 120 ml caramelised sugar syrup
* 15 ml vanilla essence
* 1/2 tsp spice powder
* 1/4 tsp nutmeg powder
* 15 ml glycerine
* Sieve all the dry ingredients together and mix with the raisins
* Cream the butter and sugar
* Add the eggs into the butter and sugar mixture and mix it till it becomes light and fluffy. Do not over-cream the mixture or it will split.
* Add the caramel colour, caramelised sugar syrup, vanilla essence, glycerine to the batter. Mix it well
* Add in the flour mixture by cutting and folding it into the batter. Do not mix it too much or the raisins will sink to the bottom at the time of baking. Pour the mixture into a well-greased and lined baking tray
* Bake the cake at 180 degree celcius for 60 to 70 minutes
* Once baked, soak the cake in rum or wine when it is still hot