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Did you know that the plum cake started off as a porridge?

Everyone’s favourite Christmas treat, the dense, fruity and boozy plum cake, originally was a porridge. Its evolution from gruel to a gourmet dish is every bit as interesting as the cake itself

Preparations for the cake start as early as October when the nuts and fruits are macerated in rum. Photo: Preparations for the cake start as early as October when the nuts and fruits are macerated in rum. Photo: Unsplash

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The weeks leading up to Christmas are hectic time in the kitchen of American Express Bakery in Bandra, Mumbai. The air is thick with the aroma of freshly baked plum cakes being packed for eager customers outside. This century-old bakery run by the Carvalhos has been baking some of the most decadent plum cakes in the country. “We have been following the same recipe passed down by my granddad. The secret lies in soaking the fruits in alcohol at least two months in advance,” says Yvan Carvalho, the third generation in the family, who still bakes the cakes on machines that were imported from England, dating back to 1940 and 1965.

Preparations for the cake start as early as October when the nuts and fruits are macerated in rum. The result is a rich, sweet and perfectly-spiced cake filled with plump fruits and a good splash of booze. These are not the rock-hard missiles that pass for Christmas cake elsewhere. From actors Helen and Ratna Pathak Shah to director Imitiaz Ali, this plum cake has many a fan following. But did you know that the forefather of our favourite plum cake is actually porridge?

A Slice of History
The story of plum cake, also known as the fruit cake, can be traced to medieval England, where it was a popular tradition to observe a period of abstinence in the weeks leading up to Christmas. A rich porridge was cooked and eaten to “line the stomach” for the upcoming feast. The porridge, made with oats, dried fruits, spices, honey and sometimes even meat, can be called the grandfather of the plum cake. It is believed that sometime in the 16th century, oats were replaced with flour, and eggs and butter were also added to the mixture. The meat had already been taken out and prepared in other forms. In the richer households that owned an oven, the mixture was baked and not boiled.

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It is not clear, however, how it came to be called the plum cake. “Plum has always been a broad term for various dried or candied fruits, currants and raisins that were added to the cake. Now, of course, it’s more commonly known as fruitcake,” explains Aditi Dugar, founder, Twentyseven Bakehouse. Yet others feel that dried plums, or prunes, were the main ingredient of the original porridge, and were gradually replaced by other, more exotic dried fruits. Whatever be the case, the name stayed. Around the same time, families of men working in British colonies in Australia, America, Canada, and other parts of the world began to make their cakes weeks, or even months, in advance and send them as a part of the Christmas hamper along with wine and presents. And that is how the first plum cake traveled out of England.

The recipes of plum cakes are a heavily guarded secret with the families that have been baking them for generations. Photo: Unsplash
The recipes of plum cakes are a heavily guarded secret with the families that have been baking them for generations. Photo: Unsplash

Best of the best

The recipes of plum cakes are heavily guarded secrets with the families that have been baking them for generations. While the Carvalhos rule the roost in Mumbai, the Saldanhas of the eponymous Bakery in Taltala have a cult following in Kolkata. This only Goan-run bakery in the city has been baking hundreds of cakes every day leading up to Christmas. They still use ancient ovens to bake them. Thom’s Bakery, Bengaluru, has been baking 5,000 to 6,000 kilograms of plum cake to be shipped to homes all over the world. 

But it may have all started in1880 when Mambally Bapu, a businessman in Thalaserry, Kerala was introduced to a rich plum cake by a British planter. Using that as benchmark, he came up with his own version (of what some say became India’s first Christmas cake) using local brew and kadalipazham bananas. That was the beginning Mambally’s Royal Biscuit Factory and Bapu went on to open many bakeries in different parts of the state. 

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Every year, Mambally’s Royal Biscuit Factory in Thalassery is flooded with Christmas cake orders from expats around the world. The 119-year-old Nahoum’s bakery in Calcutta is another plum cake legend, and long queues can be seen outside the bakery during Christmas season. Legend has it that the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, declared their fruit cake the best he had ever tasted.

Acing the plum game

Baking a plum cake isn’t a quick affair. Ideally the dry mixture, that is the dried fruits and nuts, must be macerated at least 6-7 weeks before Christmas to ensure they soak well and lend flavour to the cake. But if you’re time-starved, Paul Noronha, Executive Chef, ITC Grand Central, Mumbai suggests soaking them at least a fortnight in advance, although the taste varies vastly. “Traditionally rum or brandy was used to soak the nuts. But you could use gin too as the alcohol is made of juniper berries and works well in plum cakes. Whatever you use, don’t forget to mix the fruit and nut mixture to ensure even soaking. Do not soak them in plastic or metal containers; only dry and sterilised airtight glass containers will do. Once soaked, you don’t have to place them in the fridge. You can leave it on in a cool and dry corner at room temperature.”

And be prepared to nurture it with time, he adds. “Many people make the mistake of baking it at high temperature which turns the cake black and dry. You need to bake it for a longer time over lower heat for it to remain rich and dense,” he says. Dugar has another point:  “Don’t blindly follow European recipes in Indian weather and expect the same results. It takes some ingenuity and heavy trials to transform a standard recipe, and make it work to your standards. Practice balance and restraint. Don’t overpower it with sweetness but don’t skimp on the good stuff.”

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