I bake cakes. Make pizzas too, occasionally. Breads, I have stayed away from them. The only bread I have baked is Dilkush: bread stuffed with dry fruits and tutti frutti. It’s popular in my home state of Kerala in southern India. More of that some other time.
Let’s stick to cakes. Since Christmas is approaching, I decided to dust up my baking skills. It’s been a while since I went anywhere near the oven. Christmas is enough inspiration to bake.
So what do I bake? If it’s Christmas, it has to be a plum cake. Some called it Christmas cake.
How Christmas pudding became Christmas cake
What’s the connection? Historians say a bread version of the Christmas cake was made during Roman times. In medieval England, Christmas pudding was a tradition. Sugar and spices arrived at the English shores following colonisation, and the pudding turned into cake.
I can’t verify the authenticity of these reports, but I’m confident that the British brought cakes to India. Reports say the first plum cake was made in India in 1883 when a British planter Murdoch Brown gave an England-made cake to a local baker and asked him to replicate it. Where was it? Kerala, of course. Mambally Bapu of Thalassery in north Kerala is reported to have used local fruits and brew to make a cake that floored Brown. Now I know why plum cakes are a favourite in my home state.
Soon English plum cakes spread to the rest of India, at least to all the parts where the Brits resided. Even today, the shelves of bakeries in Kerala are packed with plum cakes any time of the year. It’s the first cake I ever ate, the only one I had for a long time. Whenever I think of cakes, plum cake comes to mind. And nostalgia floods in.
In the UAE, we get a wide variety of cakes, but I always prefer fruit cakes. I like to bake them; it’s immensely satisfying.
Is it a plum cake? No, not really. It’s a misnomer. It’s actually a fruit cake; around two cups of dry fruits are folded into my batter.
Why’s a fruit cake called plum cake? Beats me. Not a piece of plum or a prune (dried plum) goes into it, yet it’s called plum cake.
Cake books and websites say raisins or currants were called “plums” in England when Christmas pudding became Christmas cake. So cakes filled with raisins began to be termed plum cakes. I prefer to call it a fruit cake.
Why soaking dry fruits is key
My Christmas cake is the caramelised Kerala fruit cake. Here’s how I make it. I soak dry fruits in fruit juice. I prefer apple juice, although you can use orange or grape juice. As for dry fruits, I use raisins of all hues, cranberries, cherries, kiwis and candied ginger. Of late, I add a tablespoon of orange zest. Dates are nice, but it becomes mushy. So a handful is fine.
I prefer to soak fruits for a week; some recipes suggest soaking in orange juice for a few hours before bringing it to a boil. Not for me. I soak for at least a week (Do refrigerate, if you are soaking in fruit juice for more than a day).
The trickiest part is caramelising the sugar. It came out fine the first time around. Beginner’s luck, it was. After that, I burned it a couple of times before I got it right. The trick is to keep stirring at a low flame and take it off the flame to add water before returning it to dissolve the crystals.
The rest is straightforward. Whisk sugar and butter. Add vanilla. Keep whisking, alternately adding eggs and flour. Fold in the caramel and the dry fruits and roasted cashewnuts (don’t forget to dust the fruits and nuts with flour, or else they will sink). Pour into a pan and bake it at 180°C for 55 minutes. I start checking after 45 minutes and turn down the temperature to 160°F to prevent the cake from cracking at the top.
So I baked my cake. In all humility, I would say it was scrumptious. My wife loved it, but my children didn’t. They can’t stand fruit cakes. They belong to the chocolate cake and brownie-loving brigade.
Why can’t men bake?
I took some to the office. My friends and colleagues loved it. But one lady asked me: “Did you actually bake it? Or did your wife make it?” That was a sexist remark, I thought.
Why can’t men bake? I not only bake, but I also cook a decent meal. One Vishu (a Hindu festival in Kerala), I whipped up a sadya (feast) while my wife was away. And it received grudging approval from my daughter. My mutton biriyani isn’t too bad either.
I digress. Back to cakes. I baked again. This time, it was brownies for my daughter, who’s home for Christmas holidays. She loved it, so there wasn’t much left. I managed to get some to the office for my friends. Yes, I didn’t share it with the person who doubted my baking skills.
Revenge is a cake not shared. But I’ll share the recipe with you.
My Kerala fruit cake recipe
1 cup — All-purpose flour
½ teaspoon — Cinnamon powder
½ teaspoon — Mixed spice (Grind: 2 cloves, 2 cardamom pods, a pinch of nutmeg)
1 teaspoon — Baking powder
¼ teaspoon — Salt
1 teaspoon — Vanilla
½ Cup — Sugar (for caramelised syrup)
¾ Cup — Sugar (for batter)
150 gm — Butter, unsalted (at room temperature)
¼ cup — Black raisins
¼ cup — Golden raisins
¼ cup — Dates (cut into small pieces)
½ Cup — Mixed dry fruits (cranberry, kiwi, cherry, candied ginger)
1tablespoon — Mixed fruit jam (optional
½ teaspoon — Orange zest (optional)
½ cup — Cashewnuts
1 teaspoon — lemon juice (optional)
1 cup — Apple juice (Orange juice or grape juice can be used instead. IN that case, don’t use orange zest).
HOW TO MAKE THE CAKE
Soaking fruits: Soak the raisins, mixed fruit, orange zest and jam into a bowl with 1 cup of apple juice for a couple of hours (Overnight is best).
Caramelise sugar: Melt ½ cup sugar in a pan on medium heat. It will melt and become dark. Let it turn dark. But don’t allow it to burn or smoke.
Turn off the heat and add ¼ cup water and lemon juice carefully. The sugar will harden. Turn the heat back on and slow heat it till the crystals dissolve. The caramel syrup is ready; set it aside.
Preheat the oven to 180°C or 350°F.
Strain the dry fruits. Add 3 tablespoons of flour to the mixture of dry fruits and nuts. Coat it well so that it doesn’t sink in the batter.
Mix the flour, baking powder, spices and salt.
Whisk butter and ¾ cup sugar until fluffy (10 minutes by hanbd; 4 minutes with electric whisk). Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and whisk. Add an egg and whisk again. Add some of the cake mix and whisk. Add egg and flour alternately while whisking till they are used up.
Add the caramel syrup. Mix well. Fold in the dry fruits gently into the cake batter.
Pour the batter into a greased pan and bake for 50-55 minutes. Start checking from 45 minutes since each oven is different.
The cake should be brown on top, and a skewer inserted down the middle should come out clean, only with some dry crumbs.
Transfer the cake to a wire rack. After it’s cooled, dust some icing sugar. Slice and enjoy!
NOTE: The blog was updated on December 23, 2023, to add information on the first plum cake made in India.