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Festive favourite

No matter what your dietary preference, the festive fruit cake continues to enjoy a ‘plum’ position as the dessert of choice in December
As the year draws down to its last 31 days, there are some things that remain the same, the more they change. December is the month celebrations, of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in the backdrop of carols, prayers, charity and ... fruit cake.

Known more commonly as plum cake in India, this dried fruit- and nut-laden delicacy is a globe-trotter of a recipe, one that has travelled from Rome (when it had pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and raisins mixed with barley mash) to Britain, its colonies and beyond.

In its modern avatar, the fruit cake uses large quantities of candied or dried fruits, nuts and spices, soaked in alcohol or fruit juice. Mass production has led to the creation of a whole industry based on festive baking where minced fruit filling (known confusingly as ‘mincemeat’) predominates.

In our country, festive cakes and pies may be a leftover from the British Raj, but they have been adapted to a uniquely Indian palette, without losing their essential taste profile.

Once made at home several weeks ahead in the run-up to Christmas, the plum cake is now one of the main festive attractions in bakeries nationwide.

A secular tradition

“Eating plum cake in the festive season is not just for Christians anymore. We get people from all faiths who like to try our fruit cakes during December,” says S P Sethu Subbiah, of the Cake Bee bakery and restaurant chain in Tiruchi.

This year, Cake Bee is expecting to bake around 3,000-4,000 kilos of fruit cake for its five outlets in Tiruchi and branches in Chennai and Coimbatore. “Besides the regular plum cake, we have variants like the Wine Cake and Dundee Cake, as well as loaf varieties using ginger and carrot as the key ingredients. Un-iced cakes are popular up to Christmas; then slowly the demand shifts towards fancier, decorated versions for New Year parties,” says Subbiah.

As fruit cakes can last up to 45 days (longer, if regularly ‘fed’ with liquor), they have become popular as corporate gifts. “We have started using tins to showcase the festive season, with a price range of ₹150 to ₹1000 per kilo, depending on the ingredients,” says Subbiah.

“The secret of our success is in the quality of the products we add to our fruit cake. We use red wine, dark rum, and minor quantities of whisky as the liquor base.

“To get a better-tasting cake, we avoid margarine and vegetable shortening, and stick to pure butter. And we stay away from tutti-frutti, because it has artificial colours,” he adds.

The baked fruit cakes are shelved in a cool and dry place for 10 days to allow the flavours to mature before they are ready to be sold.

Non-alcoholic version

At the other end of the spectrum is the non-alcoholic plum cake sold by Bread and Spread bakery. “As we are a Muslim concern and liquor consumption is not permitted in our faith, we have opted to create a recipe that gives customers a non-alcoholic plum cake for the festive season,” says CEO Alifiya Husein.

With their recipe bypassing the month-long fermentation of the fruit mix, the Bread and Spread team starts working on its plum cakes 10 days before delivery. “Our biggest challenge is to get a taste on par with the regular plum cake without using a flavour enhancer like alcohol,” says chef David Benjamin, who oversees production at the Bread and Spread’s industrial facility in Raja Colony.

Building on a strong demand from customers in Madurai and Thanjavur besides Tiruchi, David says that Bread and Spread will be baking over 2,000 kilos of non-alcoholic fruit cakes this year. “Ultimately, products like this should be saleable if you want them to be made in a big quantity,” he says.

The Bread and Spread cake typically uses red cherries, dried figs, raisins, preserved plums and cashews that are mixed with corn syrup, plum syrup and powdered cake spice (dry-roasted cardamom, star anise, cinnamon and so on). Candied ginger and orange peel are added to the batter as well.

“This cake has to be assembled carefully, especially when it is being baked in bulk. While we can mix the batter in a cake blender, the process of adding the right amount of fruit to the flour mixture is manual,” says David, who is assisted by 12 bakers. Any step that may aid fermentation (and therefore the release of alcoholic elements) such as boiling the fruit mix before mixing it with the batter or resting the mixture before baking, is carefully avoided.

Both Cake Bee and Bread and Spread offer online booking of the plum cakes, even though a large part of the clientele still prefers to come and ‘eat with the eyes’ before they make a selection.

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