The Long Lost History Of Plum Cake
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Most Indians have fond Christmas time memories of indulging in plate after plate of plum cake. The rum-soaked fruit lining the dark brown crumb makes this dessert a visual as well as a gustatory delight. There are very few, if any, other cakes that are prepared in a similar manner to the brown round, putting it in a league of its own. When did this begin, exactly?

Well, the answer to that question, as with most that surround niche foods, is somewhat complicated. Legend has it that the rounds originated in medieval England, starting out as an oat porridge that was flavored with dried fruits, spices, and nuts. The porridge was eaten on Christmas Eve to indicate the start of the feast that surrounds the two Holy Days. In the course of a few hundred years, the porridge transmogrified into a cake, owing to technological advancements, and changes in the country’s food habits. This early version of the cake was prevalent in the 1800s, Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Carnarvon, would go so far as to say that "a good English plum cake... is a national institution." The cake was celebrated well into the start of the 19th century, after which the preparation of the rounds declined in favor of more contemporary desserts.

The cake made its way to India with the English chefs that were deployed in the country as part of the East India Company's occupation. The chefs would concoct large rounds of the cake every Christmas. The plum cake was the celebratory dessert of choice, as it was cheap and easy to prepare, with most ingredients readily available across the Indian subcontinent. Indian cultures relished the dessert, since it was inexpensive to prepare, and was considerably different compared to the desserts they routinely prepared for Christmas. The dish remains popular today, albeit in a new avatar(s).

The ingredients used to prepare the rounds, though largely the same, vary from country to country. The English and European versions use actual plums and brandy to flavor the cake; the American version swaps out the brown sugar for molasses, making for a moister, denser round. European countries, like France and Poland, make a version of the cake without the spices, or brown sugar, using vanilla and fresh Mirabelle plums for flavor. These cakes are not limited by shape, or flavor, it is not uncommon to see galettes and pates sold as plum cakes during Christmas in Europe.

Indian plum cake recipes across the nation are all similar in taste, the differences lie in the ingredients used ,and the quality of said ingredients. The traditional English recipe called for eggs, vanilla beans and brandy for flavor. Most manufacturers today avoid using these ingredients: the eggs are left out as a sign of respect for other cultures that do not consume meat, the vanilla to cut costs, and brandy in lieu of cheaper alcohols like rum and Indian ‘whisky’.

The vanilla beans are substituted with artificial vanilla extract, and the alcohol for either rum, or an artificial Jamaican rum flavor. 

 The preparation for the rounds starts a month before Christmas with a ‘fruit mixing ceremony’, wherein the fruits and nuts that are to be used in the inclusions for the rounds are mixed with different alcohols and left to steep for a month. The most commonly used fruits include dried raisins, prunes, black currants and tutti frutti (raw papaya sweetened with sucrose and dyed with assorted colors). After the fruit has absorbed the alcohol, it is coated with flour so that it does not sink to the bottom of the batter once it has been mixed. The battery itself is a simple butter cake batter made using either brown sugar or caramel syrup. The omission of eggs will create a drier, more aerated batter. Alcohol may be added directly into the mix to enhance flavor, with spiced rum being the spirit of choice. Cakes that omit the use of alcohol attempt to mimic this flavor using jamaican rum extract. Bakers that use an egg based batter will almost always add alcohol to the mix, as the spirit enhances texture and flavor in a unique way. Alcohol curdles the eggs in the batter, and infuses them with flavonoids, highlighting the flavor of the base spirit and the spices used. The spices are included in a powdered form to enhance the dissolution of flavor and to make for easy eating. The finished cake has a dark brown crust and a caramel crumb. The texture of the crumb can vary from light and airy to moist and dense, depending on the ingredients used. The flavor of the cake remains the same across adaptations, since the spice mix used for the cake remains unchanged. Plum cakes use a traditional English spice mix that consists of cardamom, cinnamon (most Indian bakers use cassia bark), ginger, clove and vanilla.