Calcutta during the month of December puts up a new makeup and for a month and completely transcends in to a party mood. Calcutta somehow gets associated with Christmas celebrations much more than any other city in India according to me, it may be due to its colonial heritage that Christmas in Calcutta is something truly different.
I belong to a very tiny Bengali Christian community in this city and we do celebrate Christmas a little differently. Talking about Christmas the first thing that comes to our mind is Christmas cake, something without which Christmas is not really Christmas.
We have lots of option in the city to get some Christmas cake like Flurys, Kathleen, Nahoums, Borua, Saldana, Cakes, Mi Amour, Cookie Jar etc. but we avoid the concept of buying Christmas cake since we prefer to bake our own cakes. There are several type of Christmas cake like Rich Fruit, Plain, Carrot, Wine, Walnut, Dundee etc. and I am going to tell you about our preferred variety that is the traditional rich fruit cake.
I will go step by step by which the cake is made and this would include sourcing the right material and the quality factor that goes behind it all. The below calculation is for batter with 3 Kg. of Wheat Flour (Maida). One thing is to be noted that no two cake batches are the same, even though we have been using the below mentioned formula for decades the final product is always different. The factors include the temperature in the oven, the quality of ingredients and some part on luck.
We prefer to go to Entally Market but there were few years we have sourced them from New Market also. Entally Market has a whole section dedicated to Dry Fruits which is in the central part of the market compound. The most famous shop is Paradise Dry Fruits, known for its quality and variety we always prefer him than the others.
We include the following dry fruits in to our cake:-
Black Raisins: 1 Kg. of black raisins, these should not be very wet while purchasing as heavy water content will reduce the shelf life of the cake. Also while purchasing if the water content is high the weight of the actual raisin will reduce when it’s dried. These are then washed and the hard tip of the raisins are individually removed by hand and left to dry under the sun for a week.
Red Cherry: It’s hard to get real cherries and the one we get are actually Karamcha or Kumquats which are dipped in red syrup to give it that distinct bright red colour. These so called cherries are cut individually by hand into small bits and just like raisins are left to dry under the sun for a week. Around 500 Grams of these are used for our fruit cake.
Mixed Fruit Peel (Candied Fruit): These are basically fruit peels of different fruits having red, green, yellow colour. Similar to cherries these are cut individually by hand into small cubes and are left to dry under the sun for a week. Around 500 Grams of these are used for our fruit cake.
Dry Ginger: Some use them and some don’t, since I have mentioned it that means we do use it to give that extra zing. As the name suggest its basically dried ginger bits which we give in very less quantity but do give as it has to do more with traditions. Occasionally when you have the fruit cake you will feel the flavour in your mouth. This is given in very limited quantity and approximately 200 Grams are used.
Petha: This has to be the best quality available as this really gives the base sweet fruity flavour to the cake along with other sweet dry fruits. These are again cut into small bits by hand and left to dry under the sun for a week. We use around 1 Kg. of it and we give a special attention to its quality.
Black Currant: Around 300 Grams of these little tiny black dots are added, this gives an occasional crunchy sour taste and blends well along with other sweet dry fruits.
Cashew Nut: This is another critical component of the cake as the cashew itself releases its own oil while baking thus the quality and the variety matters a lot. The ones used in cake are not salted but off white mix of broken and semi broken cashew. We use 1 Kg. of cashew in our cake and the most challenging part is to cut them individually by hand one by one into small bits. Anything bigger will make them heavy once inside the cake batter and will sink to the bottom of the cake, when the final cake will be cut it will be visually unpleasing to have the cashews at the bottom.
Walnut: This is a tricky item as its bit bitter and it gives out a dark oil when baked which can discolour the final cake. We use around 300 Grams of walnut (weighed without the outer shell) for our cake.
Almonds: A good quality of almonds will give a very good taste thus buy the best possible and soak them overnight in water to soften them and then cut them into small pieces and dry them under the sun to extract all the moisture that had gone in while soaking. We prefer to use around 500 Grams of Almonds.
Some experiment with Garam Masala but it’s a big no no for us, similarly some add a dash of Mace (Jayitri) but again it’s something we have managed to keep out of the Christmas cake recipe.
This is the tricky part, we use Country Chicken Eggs simple because the taste is much better and it gives a natural yellow colour to the cake. Around 40 eggs are used per Kg of wheat flour thus we use around 120 eggs. Here is the tricky part, no two eggs are of the same size thus the final quantity will go plus minus 10 eggs depending on the overall size.
You can get good eggs at New Market and Entally market, make sure to check the eggs under the dimmed lights of incandescent lamp to check for the quality.
This item is in its highest demand in the city during the Christmas season thus it’s a good idea to start stocking up from the month of November. We use around 3.5 Kg. of butter and we start to stock it a month ahead. We prefer to use Amul Butter but some prefer to use unbranded butter which are available in New Market.
The butter needs to be taken out of refrigerator 24 hour in advance so as have a soft consistency while doing the mix else it becomes difficult to mix them if they are rock solid. Please avoid low fat butter as it does not yield good result
Some people use Desi Ghee (Clarified Butter) along with regular butter but we never use it, neither do we use white oil which most commercial shops do to cut cost.
We stick to the branded ones and usually but 3 Kg. of it. The reason why we opt from branded ones are to avoid adulteration which would make the cake more of a bread.
Another critical component without which the cake will obviously not taste sweet. We add around 3 Kg. of sugar and one thing we make sure is to have a medium size crystals and with no moisture content. The bigger sugar crystals takes longer to dissolve thus not recommended, if you use fine grains then the cake mixing will be over in a short time thus resulting in a low mix.
We use Essence of Vanilla (ER) by BUSH though there are other brands available in the market but this one is the most popular. Once my father had experimented with an Orange essence but it’s better to stick with vanilla.
The Grand Cake Mixing
No there are no press photographers neither do we pose with bottles of wine, we take all the ingredients to a Bakery Shop to get them baked. During this season the bakery shops around Beck Bagan Row are fully booked and one needs to book a slot well in advance either end of November of within first week of December. We would normally get time around 18th – 19th December at around 6 AM in the morning. All ingredients packed in separate bags we head to the bakery shop to face another round of mayhem.
By the time we reach the bakery there would be at least ten more families standing before us and no surprise for guessing they too have been given the same time just like us. Amongst all this chaos you need to fight your way to one of the counters and stake your claim.
The Step By Step Process
- Egg yolk and egg white are separated by hand into two separate bowls. These bowls are made of baked clay and is being used for decades
- The separated egg whites are beaten to create a froth, the more the froth the better the cake thus you need to tip this guy to keep creating the white froth. It is to be noted that no baking powder is added to the cake batter thus this step is crutial.
- Sugar and butter is added to the egg yolk and mixed by hand till all the sugar particles dissolve, this is the reason why medium sized crystal sugar are used so that the base batter is mixed thoroughly.
- Next in line is the egg white froth which is added slowly to the mix.
- Wheat flour is then added and the mix now needs to be mixed thoroughly to prevent any undissolved lumps.
- Then we need to add the vanilla essence to the mix, if you want to create some plain cakes then the batter is separated before going to the next step.
- All the dry fruit ingredients are added one by one to the batter and finally the cake batter is ready to be transferred into cake moulds.
- Cake moulds come in various shapes and sizes, you get the round, square and rectangle varieties. You need to capture (and I mean it) the best mould which you require before any other family could get to.
- The cake moulds are lined with Cake Paper or Tracing Paper but make sure these are a bit thick. The team at the bakery shop are experts in lining this with just the help of a bread knife.
- The cake mix batter now is slowly poured into the mould and are just filled a little more than the halfway mark, rest of the space is left as the cake will expand once heated.
- A name label is placed on top of the cake to indicate the ownership of the cake. This sounds stupid but is critical as there will be hundreds of families who would bake their cake in the same oven thus identifying them once they are out is important.
- The final count is confirmed with the baker but the backing charge is not calculated according to the number of cake mould but by the amount of sugar you put in. They have a fixed rate per Kg. of sugar and we have to pay accordingly plus some Christmas Bakshish (Tips).
- You need to wait at least half an hour while the cake mould are inside the cake oven, this is to ensure that the cakes batters are not scooped out from the mould and transferred to another mould belonging to the bakery shop for their own selling.
- After half an hour inside the oven the cakes are more or less started to being baked so we come back to our house and get them collected in the evening. If you don’t want to collect them then they do offer home delivery option in one of their bicycles attached with a cake box.
The Final Product
The cakes fresh from bakery are still soft and delicate and you have to cool them under the fan to make them dry and a bit hard. By now the whole house is oozing with the essence of fresh hot cakes but these are not meant for instant consumption.
As a tradition we cut the Christmas cakes on Christmas Eve that is on 24th evening. While we are still decorating our house and neighbourhood we get the first slice of cake. There is also a small tradition to remembering my grandparents with the first slice of Christmas cake.
The name labels on the cake also has another functionality, as a tradition cakes are exchanged between families and it’s easy to identify the origin of the cake with the name tag on.
The final Christmas cake as mentioned earlier is different each year and every year it’s a surprise and since it’s a surprise that’s the reason why they are so special. I will feature a step by step photo blog of the entire process in one of my next blog till then “Ho, ho, ho… Merry Christmas” have a great festive month and wish you a very happy advent.