Off late, I have seen many photos circulating on social media on cake mixing ceremony. So much so is the confusion that a friend of mine recently requested me to invite him/her during our cake mixing ceremony at home even to the extent of promising to bring a bottle of rum to add to the mix.
Let’s clear some confusion about Christmas cakes before we proceed. For the record, not all Christmas cakes are made with wine or rum, most are actually pure dry fruit cakes. These dry fruit cakes are of different varieties also, some have the typically mixed fruit (dry), then there are walnut cake, plain cake (only with cashew), cinnamon cake etc. And also for the record a major population of people who bake Christmas cakes do not add wine or rum with their cake batter. The dry fruits are soaked in sugar syrup and dried before introducing to the cake batter.
I hope I have been able to clear some myths and now I am going to talk about the entire process of baking authentic Christmas cakes in Kolkata.
The first process in the whole exercise would be to buy the raw materials for the cake, typically a Christmas cake would require the following ingredients:-
Dry Fruits= Mixed Fruit, Mixed Fruit Peel, Cherry, Petha, Raisins, Black Currant, Dry Ginder and others depending on your personal choice.
Nuts = Cashew, Almonds, Walnut and Pistachio.
Base = Flour (we use any branded pre-packed flour like Ashirvad, Ganesh etc.), Sugar (any sugar will do but do ensure it’s not wet), Eggs (we use country chicken eggs, these are expensive but it has its own natural yellow colour) and Butter (we use Amul butter while some use Aligarh butter from New Market).
Essence = Essence of Vanilla is the most common one.
Cake Paper / Butter Paper = Buy the thick variety, the thinner ones are used as tracing sheets and will not help in cake baking. The quantity would depend on the size of the final bake but as a rule of thumb get a dozen sheets.
Where to Buy Them?
The most popular destination for dry fruits is Entally market near Moulali. There is a section within the market where you will find several dry fruit shops. The most famous and obviously expensive amongst them is Paradise Dry Fruit Centre. We do not have a fixed shop as such and change according to the best rate and quality offer. When buying dry fruits ensure that you feel the quality with your hand to see if it’s excessive mushy which would indicate not a good quality. Also feel free to ask for samples for tasting, it’s a part of the tradition to taste them and to give a nod when you have finalised on the preferred variety. Shops often inflate the weight of the dry fruits by adding water thus ensure that it’s not too wet.
Other than Entally market some also buy from New Market (SS Hogg Market) shops which are located on the outer north-eastern section of the market. The price of dry fruits tends to be a bit expensive at New Market.
Butter is one of the items which every year sees a huge dip in availability due to the huge demand during Christmas baking season. So much so is the crisis that we buy them by end of November and stock them up. We prefer using Amul butter but some have stuck on to using white butter which is popularly known as Aligarh cake butter. These are available in New Market and the most famous shop is Bakhuli. Some also experiment with ghee (clarified butter) and vegetable oil but we stick to butter.
For vanilla essence, you have roughly two choice Bush or Esso thus buy whichever is available.
The next tricky item would be country chicken eggs, the problem with country eggs are that the size is never consistent thus you need to always add or subtract during the final mix. It’s a common trick to sell regular poultry eggs which are dipped in raw tea to give it a country egg look. Thus always buy them from shops with good stocks in hand. You will find plenty of these egg shops in Entally market and in New Market. Make sure you ask them to check each egg by examining it under an incandescent lamp.
Buy the flour and sugar at the last as these are readily available, just ensure the quality is the best and for the sugar ensure that it’s dry and free from water or moisture.
Just like you have Pepsi and Coke similarly cakes have different recipes and every house will have its own recipe which they will claim it to be the best in the world. Thus what I am sharing is specific to my home and I am not claiming it to be the only one.
This is for a 3 KG cake batter mix: (This will give you around 52 Pounds of cake)
Raisins = 1.5 Kg
Black Currant = 250 Gms
Petha = 1 Kg
Cherry (Karamcha or Kumquats) = 250 Gms
Mixed Fruit = 250 Gms
Mixed Fruit Peel = 250 Gms
Dry Ginger = 150 Gms
Cashew = 1.5 KG
Almonds = 250 Gms
Walnut = 250 Gms
Pistachio = 250 Gms
Essence of Vanilla = 3 small bottles
Flour = 3 Kg
Sugar = 3 Kg
Butter = 3.5 Kg
Eggs = 120 + – (40 X per Kg)
Butter Paper = 12 Pcs
Preparing the Ingredients
By the first week of December, the dry fruits and nuts are usually purchased along with the eggs. The dry fruits are not ready for the cake mix yet, these needs to be cut and dried. The raisins need to be washed and the hard tip removed. The petha needs to chop in small dice shaped size, note that after drying the petha dice will shrink thus cut accordingly. The cherry needs to slice and dried. No need to cut the black currants since they are quite small. Mixed fruit peel and mixed fruit also need to cut in diced shaped size and given for drying. Dry ginger is quite hard to cut thus make sure you have a heavier knife for it.
The nuts, on the other hand, require a different treatment. The cashed needs to be broken down into three different size type. You may use a mixer grinder but try it out a couple of times with less quantity to ensure that it does not turn into a powder. The small and powder variety is essential as these will mix with the batter completely and release its own oil, the medium size ones are the ones you will visually be able to see in a cake slice and the largest ones are used for decorating the top of the cake.
Almonds and pistachios need to soak overnight in water to remove their outer skin. This process also softens the nut which can be easily cut. Ensure to dry them to eliminate all the moisture content. Walnut is to be used the least as they release a bitter oil, just chop them and let them dry.
All the ingredients are dried under the sun for 3 – 4 days. Make sure you cover them else the birds will have a feast. Also, ensure that by 3 PM the ingredients are brought back inside as to protect them from evening dew which can spoil the ingredients.
Where to Bake?
It’s not possible for a home baker to bake this much quantity of cake batter in a single oven. What is usually done is to take the raw ingredients to a bakery shop and get them mixed on the spot and then use their oven to bake the cakes. Now the challenge is to book your baking slot well in advance, usually by the first week of December you have to approach a bakery to get your spot booked. It’s also a practice for the bakery to allot the same day and time to more people thus be sure to get shocked on the D-day.
We generally do our baking on 19th of December, this is also the day of my father’s birthday thus it’s a part of the celebration. We take the earliest schedule at around 7 AM and reach the venue much in advance but will still face stiff competition from others who had been given the same date and time.
In a traditional wood fired bakery there would be 3 to 4 mixing station, each managed by a master mixer, the trick is to slip a 20 Rupee note to the master mixer as a bakshish and ensure your turn comes up next.
These bakeries are all traditional manual bakeries where all the mixing is done in large vats and by utilising bare hands. Forget about hygiene, almost 99% of the cakes that you eat in the city during Christmas are baked in this fashion.
First sugar is poured into the mixing bowl, these bowls are either earthen pots or large iron cooking pots. Butter is added to the sugar, please ensure that the butter is not frozen else it will be difficult to mix. Ideally, the butter should be taken out of the freezer 24 hours before the actual day of baking. The master mixer now with bare hands mixes the butter and sugar till the sugar completely dissolves, this is critical else the cake would be full of undissolved chunks.
Eggs are then added one by one to the mix, ideally, the yolk and the white part is separated and mixed separately. The while part is whipped to a foam which is slowly added to the mix thus adding air to the mix since baking powder is not used in Christmas cakes.
Flour is slowly added to the mix, the master mixer constantly keeps mixing with his hands and also in the process feels the consistency, any shortcuts and you will have globules of flour sticking out in a cake slice.
Once the base of the cake mix is formed essence of vanilla is mixed followed by cashews and other nuts. If you want to make some plain cakes then the mixed batter is put inside moulds. Rest of the dry fruits and slowly mixed one by one and the master mixer keeps mixing them thoroughly.
Once the final cake batter is ready the master mixer shifts to arrange the cake moulds. The moulds come in different shape and size thus make sure to inform him early so as to keep them booked for you. Butter paper is carefully placed around the mould and filled up half the way. Garnish the top with nuts and make sure to put labels on top.
The cake label has two purposes, one to keep a track when the moulds go inside the oven and secondly when you gift a cake to someone they know who it has come from while eating. This might sound strange to you but during the Christmas season, we get oven an average of 30 cakes from friends and relatives.
These bakeries use ovens which are more than 100 years old and are wood fired. These are the same oven where on regular days bread, cookies and biscuits are made. Before the cake moulds are placed inside the oven make sure to count them all and also ensure that the baker registers the number of moulds so that you receive the exact quantity once done. Once they are in the oven we wait for at least 30 minutes before leaving else there are chances that the unbaked cakes would be brought out and scoops of cake batter taken out to be later used to make a cake of their own.
The bakery would normally inform you of the exact time of delivery thus come with boxes or trunks to take the baked cakes back home. We have a dedicated iron trunk where we keep our cakes and have been using this for generations. The baked cakes would be extremely hot and not ready for consumption yet, the cakes need to keep upside down and cooled down by a fan to let the ingredients to settle. Also, this process would ensure that butter and nut oils to spread equally all over the cake.
The consistency of the cakes are different every year and this is what makes Christmas cakes so different and yet special. The taste changes on the factor of temperate of the oven, quality of the dry fruits and 100% of luck. Whatever it may be there is no shop that can beat the taste of authentic Kolkata Christmas cakes.
Location of Bakeries
Click here to open the location on Google Maps.