Of all Christmas traditions, my favourite one, unsurprisingly perhaps, revolves around baking. Every Christmas, we baked dozens of fruit cakes to give away. To family, to neighbours, to our household help, and to friends. If there was one tradition that my family stuck to every year, it was this one.
In the beginning, as the Bible might have said, there was fruit and rum. The fruit came from a little hole-in-the-wall in one of the bylanes of Gole Market. I remember the proprietors, two mustachioed pot-bellied brothers with gentle faces and greying heads. They smiled at us in recognition as my mother walked towards the store, shopping list in hand. She would recite from her long list, as a scrawny helper hurried around, prising things from the depths of the tiny shop to drop into our shopping bags. It never ceased to amaze me how such a little space could hold so much.
My mother's shopping lists were usually dull - coconuts, a staple in our South Indian home, rice, Dove soap and other mundane things. My brother and I whiled away time lustily staring at biscuits and chips and other such things that childhood dreams are made of, sitting pretty on the shop shelves in shiny packaging.
But Christmas time was different. In addition to coconuts, rice and Dove soap, our shopping list included crystallised ginger, raisins and other such happy things. Shopping for fruit cake typically happened weeks before Christmas. Once we got home, we chopped the ginger into little bits, washed and dried the raisins, and left them all to stew in the company of liquor in a large jar in the dark world underneath our kitchen table. Over weeks in the company of each other, the fruits and the rum blended into each other. It was this cozy friendship that anchored our home baked fruit cakes.
An evening or two before Christmas day, the jar full of drunk fruits would be retrieved, and we would get to work. As kids, we were assigned the most menial tasks in the cake baking assembly line including beating the egg whites with our electric mixer, greasing the cake tins, and sifting the flour and leavening agents. I despised them all in varying degrees, wanting to be the one in charge of executive decisions such as when to mix the dry ingredients and the wet, or deciding whether the eggs had had enough of a beating. Instead, my mother in charge of course, and she issued a series of "not yets" to our urgent enquiries.
"Can we stir in the fruits now?"
"Can I stop beating the eggs now"
"Can we add in the flour now"?
And so on.
But it was impossible to sulk in a corner with drunk fruit for company in the kitchen and the promise of fruit cake in the air. And so, with an odd mixture of sullenness and excitement, we set to work, sneaking in a bite or two of fruit whenever possible.
As the moment of truth neared, the excitement in the kitchen was palpable as we crowded around the oven to catch a glimpse (and a large slice) of the finished product. Our oven was far too small for several cake tins to go in at once. So we baked the cakes in batches. As batch after batch emerged, we passed judgment. This batch is better than that one, this other one was nice and fruity, oh I can taste the rum, this one is slightly burnt around the edges. It was all an elaborate excuse to eat as much cake as possible in one evening. I remember vividly images of our messy Christmas kitchen, with bits of batter on the kitchen table, a stack of dirty dishes in the sink, and the intoxicating aroma of fruit cake in the air.
Funnily, I have never been a big fan of fruit cake. Neither is my brother. But the pull of tradition, the warmth of a hot oven and the comfort of home-made cake was enough to draw us in, and to warrant our full, enthusiastic participation. It has been ten years since I last spent Christmas at home. The memories of our Christmas baking tradition though, are etched deeply in my memory, and I reckon they will easily stay alive for a few more decades to come.
Although we have yet to establish Christmas traditions far from home, we did bake cake on Christmas eve. I chose to bake a throat warming ginger cake, a winning combination of sugar and spice. I hope you also have traditions, old or new, to celebrate during this festive time. Merry Christmas and a very happy new year to you!
Ginger Cake (reproduced from this link with minimal tweaks)
4 ounces fresh ginger
1 cup mild molasses ( note that mild molasses is different from other types of molasses)
1 cup sugar (I used brown sugar for a richer flavour)
1 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 eggs, at room temperature
Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9 by 3-inch round cake pan or a 9 1/2 inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper.
Grate the ginger finely. Mix together the molasses, sugar, and oil. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, and black pepper.
Bring the water to the boil in a saucepan, stir in the baking soda, and then mix the hot water into the molasses mixture. Stir in the ginger.
Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the top of the cake browns too quickly before the cake is done, drape a piece of foil over it and continue baking.
Cool the cake for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Remove the cake from the pan and peel off the parchment paper.