Christmas may be posed as a Western festival, but there are dozens of communities within India who have age-old customs and cherished recipes. The Allahabadi Christmas cake is one such gem.
When you think of Christmas cakes, the narrative is all about boozy rum-soaked puddings or maybe even a rich loaf of Stollen. But within India, there are several festive treats which are just as iconic to locals as their international counterparts.
Within Prayagraj or Allahabad, as it's historically known, there is a version of Christmas cake that is truly unique to the city and can’t be found on your regular run-of-the-mill bakery menus. Known as the Allahabadi Christmas Cake it’s made with some ingredients that are likely suspects in Christmas fare like rum-soaked dried fruit and nuts, and some that aren’t like the ash gourd sweet petha and local marmalades, but its long history is what makes it a treasured addition to local celebrations.
Video Credits: Chef Ranveer Brar/YouTube
Allahabad has long been a coveted political and economic hub, earlier by the Mughal settlers and later by the British East India Company. It was so important that for one day – during Lord Canning’s famous proclamation announcing Queen Victoria had seized control of British India through the East India Company – Allahabad was declared the capital of British India.
In 1858, Allahabad was named the capital of the North Western Provinces construction of a new town began o a grid-iron pattern. This soon became the largest settlement of the time – prior to Delhi becoming the new political centre – and was named Cannington or ‘Civil Lines’. It was a cultural and economic hub with traders and became a well-known destination for people from all across the world. Today a lot of the architecture still bears hallmarks of that past but by far the most delicious thing to come out of that confluence of cultures is the Christmas Cake.
In the area around Civil Lines, a thriving Anglo-Indian community grew and thrived, mainly made up of people working in the railways. There, in 1963 Bushy Bakery which was run by Mohammad Aslam at the time, was where the first Allahabadi Christmas Cake was born. At Bushy, you could bring your own ingredients and they would bake a cake to your specifications, a practice they continue to this day. And when Ms. Barnett, an Anglo-Indian lady from the railway colony brought petha, Murabba (a type of sweet fruit jam), Ghee and fennel seeds and demanded a cake made from them, they complied with her request and made history in the process.
This cultural mash-up drew on the best flavours of both cultures to form an all-new Christmas treat. Alongside rum-soaked fruits there were also traditional Christmas spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and ginger. But then you have the richness of ghee, the unique textures and flavours of murraba and petha and the distinct edge of fennel. Even today people book months in advance for a taste of this local creation and as the days to Christmas grow closer, it’s said that the smell of baking cakes lingers in the air all day long.
So this year, if you’re looking for a Christmas showstopper that holds not only a depth of flavour but a wealth of history, make a spot at your table for the Allahabadi Christmas Cake.