The Indian Tradition of Baking Cakes for Christmas

Hello on the first day of 2016 ! Wishing you good health and contentment and a very Happy New Year !
This was meant to be posted before Christmas but wasn’t. But you know what they say- better late, etc, and really, what’s wrong with extending Christmas into the new year !

I was introduced to the making of rich fruit cake or ‘Christmas cake’ by my Maami, Prita. My maama, her husband and my mother’s brother, Shantanu, then a young officer of the Indian army, Prita and their two children would come to our grandfather’s home in Allahabad almost every summer to spend their holidays. When my grandfather died they continued to come and spend their holidays in our home. Prita was a a school teacher then and was very talented like many Indian armed forces wives are. She was a fabulous cook.(She now has minions to do her cooking but she has taught them well). The fact that Maama was obsessive about eating and serving good food-lots of it-must have inspired (and irritated!)her.
In the heat of the summer afternoons while everybody else was napping, Prita would be in our kitchen baking us goodies in my mother’s round Bajaj oven. So there was lemon tart, chocolate popcorn, cheesecake–yes, we actually had all these for tea- one thing a day !

Every two years or so from where ever they were posted Prita would arrange for a visiting army jawan to carry fruit cake for us baked for Christmas. You see, Prita is Christian, from Meerut, and she knew all about baking’Christmas cake’. We, being Hindu, visited homes of Christian friends during Christmas, just ate the cake(and drooled over it for the next one month!)but knew nothing about baking it.
Prita’s cakes used to be delicious. What I found fascinating was that she would have 15 or 20 cakes that she would send for family and friends. Since everyone with interest and the means had these small, round, table top ovens, and large quantities had to be baked, cakes were baked at a professional baker’s. It was only much later that I came to understand that this was a tradition- carry measured quantities to a baker and he would do the mixing and then the baking of cakes in his bhatti–a wood-fired oven.So you had enough cake for family and visiting friends to eat for days and enough to give a small cake each to close friends.

Happily, this tradition continues till today.

I wanted a part in all this pre-Christmas excitement so decided to go to a bakery for my very own cakes. Our friend, Vijay Dube, instructed me on where to go and how to go about it. So I carried all my raw materials to Apollo bakery. And had my cakes baked.
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Apollo, as most other old bakeries(as opposed to the new ones that have come up on every street) in Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh( sorry, I am not sure how it is in other Indian states), is owned by muslims. In almost all cases, the bakeries were run by the British in the colonial days. When they left before or after India’s independance in 1947, they sold them off to their co-workers.The names have been retained in most cases. So we have ‘Bengal’, ‘Cupid’ and ‘Apollo’.Their offerings include tons of sliced white bread, rusk, meetha bun, small paan-shaped cakes,puff pastry covered, chocolate ended conical cream rolls, patties(aloo stuffed puff pastry) and during Christmas, white and brown fruit cake lined with oily brown paper that you peel off before slicing.
Apollo is owned by the father-son team, Abdul Rashid and Mehboob Alam. Mehboob runs the bakery and says it was his grandfather, Fazal Ahmed, who took over the bakery from the British owner. Neither his father nor he can recollect who the person was except that the bakery probably belonged to St. Francis school which is opposite the bakery. In fact, it is property of the school still.

Mehboob Alam with two of his bakers, Sahim Khan and Azam in his bakery on Shahnajaf Road-
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And year after year, from about 20 days before Christmas, they start the ritual of baking cakes for private people. On a given day you are allotted numbers–first come-first served- and you wait your turn. Meanwhile,you chat with the other Hopefuls about whose relative will visit and when- while vendors come by selling hot tea.Hot masala tea on a nippy December morning is incomparable ! Of course, you can always buy meetha bun or a patty from the bakery if you are hungry.

Marina Pierce with her ‘Hit’box and trunk full of raw material awaiting her turn-this sight at about 10 am around 16th of December, in any bakery in U.P., is a common one-

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Father Alwin Morris(on the left of the picture) of the Catholic Diocese of Lucknow, and three members of the George family(on the right) and the baker himself(on the extreme right in the foreground) also having their cakes mixed-
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You have the cake mixed by experienced hands-
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The hands for my cake belonged to Nizam-it is all in the hands !
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They then put the batter into tins. Then, very elaborately, you write your name on slips of paper and put one slip on each of your cakes. Once about 300 cakes are ready, yours, too, go into the oven. You return at a given time and collect your fabulous smelling cakes.

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Finally, Prita’s recipe for Fruit cake from a old notebook from 1975-

2 cups white flour, 1 cup butter, 1 cup sugar, 6 eggs, 1 tsp vanilla essence, 2 tsp ground spices(5 cloves,1 stick cinnamon,1/2 a nutmeg, a few strands of mace),1 and a half tsp. baking powder, 1/2 jar marmalade, a pinch of shah jeera, 5 cups of mixed candied fruit(orange peel,petha,raisins, currants,(all these preferably soaked in two cups of rum a month ahead) walnut kernel, cashew nuts), 2/3 cup burnt sugar (take 2/3 cup sugar in a kadhai allow to melt , caramelize and then burn till dark chocolate in colour. Remove from fire and carefully add 1/2 cup warm water. Mix in and heat again till water and burnt sugar blend. Remove).

Beat butter and sugar. Add eggs one by one. Keep beating. Mix in everything else and bake in an oven at 180 degrees for about an hour. Better still, carry everything to the local bakery and let them take care of the rest !

The cake on our table-moist, delicious with your quota of dried fruit for the day in every slice-
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My maami, thank you for your recipe and everything else! You have influenced our extended family in more ways than you know–we may not look it(!) but we are so much richer for it !

And to you all–a big thank you for stopping by to read–try making this cake-you will love it !

See you soon !

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About Adity

Hello ! You are either already a friend or will become one--through this medium! I am an artist and jewellery maker, a wife and mother to two lovely children. Beautiful homes, food, nature and wonderful things happening around me make me ecstatic. That is why I started to write this blog-- to share with you all of these things. After all what good is any experience if not shared !
This entry was posted in Homes-old and new, Recipes and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Indian Tradition of Baking Cakes for Christmas

  1. Uttama says:

    My dear Adity, thank you for sharing these nice photos, and recipe, it makes me mouth watering!
    I wish I could be there, smelling and tasting that fruit cake.
    I wish you a very peaceful happy New Year!
    Love, U.

    • Adity says:

      Delighted to hear from you Uttama ! You will have to come here to taste that cake ! How are you -how is Pierre and your daughter ?
      A very Happy New Year to you as well ! Write by email, please.

  2. Ranjana Sengupta Raghavan says:

    Lovely article, Adity. Happy new year!

  3. Sybil Singh says:

    Lovely write up Aditi . Reminds me of Allahabad and the whole experience of getting the cakes baked at Bushy the baker . I miss it so much and all our friends too . Here’s wishing you compliments of the season and A very Happy New Year .

    • Adity says:

      Sorry for the late reply. Thank you for reading and for your wishes.A Happy New Year to you and everyone in Dubai ! I can imagine how you must miss Christmas in Allahabad. I do think the cake there tastes better -maybe Bushy’s recipe !

  4. vijai dube says:

    Nice, love the details part, which nearly everyone tends to leave.

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