Santa Claus has already come visiting with cake mixing, lighting up Christmas trees, carols and all his Christmas goodies
Last week, I finally got to get my hands dirty on some rum and raisin, and some plump sultanas, mint-fresh pistachios, cashews, orange zest, and the peaches and plums too. I am referring to my annual fix of the cake mixing ceremony, which I take great delight in participating, barring a minor rider, which I will come to, later.
There is something absolutely magical about the ritual of cake mixing, the heady aroma of alcohol wafting through the air, with the fruity afternotes of all the cake mix ingredients, mostly dried fruits, and nuts, with some tutti-frutti thrown in, and the Christmas festive bonhomie and cheer which this ritual, quite literally, switches on start mode.
As luck would have it, I was travelling during most of the cake-mixing occasions I was invited to this year in Hyderabad. So, when an invite to my favourite poolside dinery by one of my most fave chefs in town came in, I happily accepted it.
This particular F&B establishment does an ‘organic’ cake-mixing ceremony and by that, I mean, sans the brouhaha which now characterises most star hotels’ gala annual cake mixing events. Read: A big-ticket celeb in attendance or socialites looking out for a Page 3 photo option the next day, thanks to the paparazzi in attendance. Don’t get me wrong, I am from the media fraternity too, but some of these cake-mixing do’s lose their spirit and purpose in the high-profile social events that they eventually turn out to be.
I remember on one occasion, at a star hotel’s cake-mixing, there were so many glamorous socialites wanting their picture in the frame that the table on which the mix was laid out (in the form of a Santa Claus) started teetering and wobbling dangerously and had it not been for a vigilant pastry chef, who must have toiled over the mix ingredients, (usually weighing about 20 kilos for any star hotel) the precarious tipping over of the table had all the makings of a potential disaster. So, now you might have guessed my personal rider when it comes to accepting cake mixing invites, more of chefs and in-house staffers, and fewer of guests, who focus on the Christmas spirit in a quiet environment of bonhomie and cheer, and not just for getting snapshots for their Instagram feed alone.
Coming back to last week’s event, the cake-mixing was conducted by the hotel’s chefs, along with a few houseguests and food bloggers, which suited me fine. The weather turned out to be perfect and as we, hatted, gloved and aproned, poured the rum, wine and brandy over the gorgeous sultanas, raisins, plums, pistachios, cashews, peaches, which would be stored away for baking the traditional plum cakes later, there was a perceptible festive nip in the air.
The history of cake mixing dates back to the 17th Century in Britain. Traditionally in Europe, US and other Christian cultures, the cake mixing ceremony is held in the first week of November, to celebrate the onset of a good harvest. In fact, Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday in the US and Canada, which falls on November 24 marks the beginning of a month-long (and more, until New Year) festivities. Ironically, while cake-mixing is now a gala event in India, it is mostly a private, intimate family affair in most of Europe, the US and other Western countries.
Christmas cake mixing events by star hotels and now standalone restaurants are now de rigeur in not only the bigger metros of India, but also in smaller towns like Bhubaneswar and Vijayawada.
These pre-Christmas events have come into vogue in the last decade or so, as a fall out of the ‘New Year Desk’ set up by most hotel brands in the first week of December to sell their New Year Ball gala evening tickets, offers Ankush Mukherjee, the F&B director of The Park Hyderabad, by way of explaining the trend of cake mixing. When Christmas inquiries gradually came in on the desk, Christmas hampers were initially introduced and gradually a quiet, in-house prep mode ritual for chefs in a hotel, got thrown open to guests, either on a complimentary basis or at a nominal fee. It is a goodwill gesture which the hotel now extends to its valued patrons and influencers to mark the beginning of a festive season.
Besides plum cake, the sheer range of other lesser-known but absolutely delicious Christmas goodies is amazing. For example, Yule Log, Mince Pie, German Stollen, Panettone and Plum Pudding (a moister version of the plum cake) are some of the desserts executive chef Desserts & Co Akram Ali ends up making during Christmas but, like he says, the traditional Christmas plum cake with icing gets his vote, as well as of his clients every single time.
Image credit:Desserts & Co
Indian Christians, specifically Goan and Mangalorean Catholics from the Konkan region have diversified the Christmas baking board to incorporate as many as 22 different traditional sweets and snacks, some with a distinct Indian profile. The Christmas goodies platter here is referred to as Koswad or Kuswar, derived from the Indo-Portuguese word Consoada, referring to the Christmas Eve dinner. The spread has goodies like Kulkuls , a baked curly-shaped sweet made of flour, semolina, flavoured with powdered coconut, sugar, eggs and milk. Perada or guava cheese is yet another Christmas confection made from savoury guavas and sugar.Dodol (jaggery and rice pudding), Bebinca, (a layered baked dessert made with flour, sugar, coconut milk and ghee), Neuries (puffs stuffed with plums, nuts and fried sesame, Marzipan (sugar and almond meal), rose cookies (also common in Kerala) and rice chaklis, which is a local savoury, are some of the other distinct Kuswag offerings. This is in addition to the mandatory roast turkey/chicken/duck and plum cakes, with some home-made mulled wine.
My other favourite pre-Christmas rituals have got to be the Christmas tree lighting ceremony and the crafting of the gingerbread house. In the past few years, there have been gingerbread houses in the shape of Golkonda Fort and Charminar too. Last year, Westin Mindspace Hyderabad had a 35-feet tall edible Eiffel Tower and gingerbread house set up in the lobby, along with a Santa in his red bus ferrying kids on rides and handing out gifts from his sack. Though the gingerbread houses are edible, made of sugar and spice (ginger and five spice powder) and all things nice, the salt added to increase shelf life renders it to be discarded.
The most priceless Christmas gift I have treasured is the plum cake baked by my friend and colleague Jean Pandian, who has since relocated to the US. But until she was in India, never mind, the city I was working in, a brown paper parcel would arrive by courier in time for Christmas. While unwrapping the paper, my nostrils would be assailed by the heady aroma of the rich plum cake and the air would be all happy and festive.
Here is to merry and jolly times, Ho Ho Ho!