Christmas is here and so is the season for mulled wine, rose cookies and boozy Christmas cake. Better still, if it’s a slice of the sinfully rich, spicy, rum-infused Allahabadi cake, especially ones from the city’s legendary bakery Bushy’s. Perked up with rum-soaked dried fruits and nuts, petha (ash-gourd candy) and locally-produced marmalade, the rich fruit cake is made with pure ghee and a tadka of spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, fennel, mace and ginger. Perhaps born in the Anglo-Indian kitchens of Allahabad’s railway colony, this rendition of a traditional Christmas cake is, above all, quintessentially Indian.
But the Allahabadi cake is not the only cake that comes with a heavy Indian accent. European colonists might have introduced us to the art of baking a cake, but look around and you will find a delicious variety of cakes that are unmistakably Indian not only by virtue of their taste, flavours or origin, but also their cultural iconicity and sentimental value.
History at the table
In his book Sweet Invention: A history of Desserts, culinary historian Michael Krondl wrote, “The only Indian oasis of cakes is Goa, the former Portuguese colony on the west coast, which has a five-hundred year old baking tradition.” The Portuguese were master confectioners and Goan confectionery is steeped in Portuguese influence. Nonetheless, it boasts a distinctive local flavour, acquired through ingenious adaptation to local produce and native culinary techniques. For instance, typical European baking essentials such as milk, butter and refined flour were substituted with easily obtainable and inexpensive Goan staples such as coconut milk, rice flour, semolina and ghee, or even coconut oil.
This history is evident in the legendary bebinca, perhaps the best known Goan confectionery. The multi-layered cake, baked painstakingly on a slow fire, one layer at a time, uses thick coconut milk and ghee, in addition to eggs, flour and sugar (or jaggery). In the absence of European-style ovens in the past, Goans would traditionally bake their cakes in clay ovens fuelled with coconut husk, dried leaves that in turn imparted a unique flavour to the dish.
In The Essential Goa Cookbook, Maria Teresa Menezes has archived the recipe for the Bolo Tatiana or the Goan nut cake made with almonds, cashew nuts and walnuts, lots of eggs and a splash of rum or brandy. “The Portuguese probably used pine nuts for this dish, but cashew nuts substitute very well,” she writes. Cashew nut, of course, is yet another abundantly available ingredient in Goa.
“However, the quintessential Goan cake that best represents the Goan people is the baath cake,” said Pune-based Hilda Mascarenhas, who shares recipes from her native land, Goa, on her blog Hilda’s Touch of Spice. Made with semolina and fresh coconut, the rose-scented baath cake is perhaps a spinoff of the Portuguese bolo de coco. While key ingredients remain the same, recipes for this festive favourite vary from one household to the other. Some of the more elaborate ones call for the use of coconut milk and cream in addition to shredded coconut, while others insist on letting the rich batter ferment overnight. “While some use desiccated coconut, the secret to a superlative baath cake, is fresh coconut,” insisted Mascarenhas, whose fondest memories are of her grandmother baking baath cakes in a traditional clay oven, on chilly winter evenings.
Besides, there are the classic plum cakes and fruit cakes done the Goan way. “A particularly special one – the Goan black cake – uses slightly burnt caramel that gives it a hint of bitterness and a gorgeous dark colour,” said Mascarenhas.
Caramelised sugar is also what gives Odisha’s feted cheese cake, the chhana poda (it means burnt cottage cheese), its signature flavour. Fresh cottage cheese, kneaded with semolina and sugar, and a sprinkle of cardamom, is wrapped in sal leaves and baked for hours. The result is a dense, moist cake with a luscious, caramelised crust. A close cousin of the Goan baath is the East Indian thali sweet, a Christmas must. A batter of eggs, semolina and sugar is left to ferment overnight. Finely ground almond and fresh coconut, along with few drops of rose water is then folded into the batter, which is finally baked in the eponymous thali.
Another particularly special variant of the Christmas cake is the luxurious vivikam cakes, a Creole import to the Pondi-kitchen. Made with roasted semolina and pure ghee, the rich, boozy, cake comes chockfull with rum (or brandy)-soaked cashew nuts and raisins, candied fruits and citrus peels. Also known as the Pondicherry Christmas cake, it is traditionally served to friends and family on Christmas Eve, paired with a glass of cognac. Interestingly, like some wines, this cake gets better with age and can be stored for weeks, but never refrigerated.
In Mattancherry, Kochi, 95-year-old Sarah Cohen, the oldest surviving member of the city’s once thriving Jewish community, can still call out the ingredients for a special cake that they would trump up for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, albeit with some effort and encouragement from her caretaker Taha Ibrahim. “Semolina, sugar, eggs, cashew, raisins and ghee,” said Cohen, with an emphasis on ghee, and added after a long pause, “and spices! Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.”
The rich, spicy ghee cake enjoys a glory spot in the culinary memoirs of Kochi’s Jewish community. “The Cochini Jews also make a special cake made with a mix of semolina and refined flour, eggs, the whites whipped separately before being folded into the batter, and lots of ghee,” said chef Thoufeek Zakriya. Up north in Kerala’s Malabar region, fluffy cakes, usually baked in covered pans, are trumped up with a range of ingredients. There’s the thari pola, the Malabar version of the semolina cake, kai pola, trumped up with the ubiquitous plantain, the kadalakka pola made with chana dal and finally, the mutta pola, a pillowy, cardamom-flavoured egg cake, sometimes tinged with a hint of turmeric – also an iftar favourite.
“A unique Moplah favourite is a layered cake called chattipathiri,” said Abida Rasheed, renowned home-chef and an expert in Moplah or Malabari Muslim cuisine. Layers of thin chapattis laced with sweetened, cardamom-infused egg-and-milk batter and sweet scrambled eggs baked together, the chattipathiri comes topped with loads of nuts and raisins and roasted poppy seeds.
A traditional cake called mandas is a perennial favourite of Mangalorean Catholic kitchens. “It is a cross between a cake and pudding, made with rice, jaggery and cucumber,” said Dubai-based food blogger Shireen Sequeira, whose blog Ruchik Randhap has a wealth of traditional Mangalorean recipes. Typically made in pure ghee, flavoured with a hint of cardamom, baked or steamed, the recipe calls for the short-grained Mutambo rice, cucumber and fresh coconut. “The baked version comes with a delicious brown crust,” said Sequeira. A Tulu variation of the cucumber cake, interestingly, calls for the addition of caramelised onions and a smidgen of fenugreek.
“Another quintessential Mangalorean cake, though rarely made these days, is the bole,” said Sequeira. The caraway-scented cake, studded with coarsely chopped nuts and raisins, has two key ingredients – jaggery, that gives it its sweetness and a mild earthy note, and adsar or semi-matured coconut that dominates its flavour.
A tradition of baking
One of the most iconic desi cakes is perhaps the mawa cake, popularised by Mumbai’s famed Irani cafes and Parsi bakeries. A favourite accompaniment to tea, the rich, dense, buttery cake loaded with the milky goodness of the quintessentially desi mawa (milk solids). “The ones at the iconic B Merwan and Co and Paris Bakery are still the best,” said Dr Kurush F Dalal, archaeologist and the owner of popular Parsi catering outfit Katy’s Kitchen. Incidentally, the century-old B Merwan is often credited with the invention of the mawa cakes.
But according to Dalal, the mawa cake has in all probability evolved from the traditional Parsi tea-time favourite Kumas, a dense, rustic cake steeped in culinary comfort. The batter, made with semolina, wheat flour, eggs and full cream yoghurt, and flavoured with spices like nutmeg and cardamom, is left to ferment overnight (some recipes call for 24 hours in a warm place), and baked the day after. “Jaggery, molasses or sugar is used as the sweetening agent. Charoli and raisins make for fantastic additions,” said Dalal. There are some who trace the origin of the Kumas to the Zoroastrian Komach, a yeast-leavened cake-of-sorts.
In Bengaluru, the ubiquitous Iyengar Bakeries that mushroomed during the 1960s and ’70s (though, purportedly, the first Iyengar bakery, BB Bakery, is said to have opened doors in Chikpet area, as early as 1898) became popular by virtue of their baked goods that came with a distinct desi twist. One of their best known offerings is the honey cake, a pillowy sponge cake doused in sticky syrup, topped with a layer of fruity jam and a sprinkle of desiccated coconut.
“Steeped in nostalgia, honey cake is a fantastic example of a cake with an Indian identity,” said Madhu Iyengar, a second-generation baker who runs the show at LJ Iyengar Bakery that was started by his father in the 1970s. “It has, in fact, evolved into a cultural icon that generations have grown up with.” Finally there’s the vettu cake – sweetened, leavened dough, curiously patterned to resemble a flower and deep fried – which is a ubiquitous tea-stall snack in Kerala.