For 11 months you hear no mention of fruitcake in Kolkata, but suddenly in December it becomes the talk of the town as the whole city starts smelling like a giant oven. Suddenly in December the display counters of all confectioners and grocery stores are lined with loaves of fruitcake wrapped in parchment paper secured with golden decorative strings.
Trust me when I say that this is not the regular appearance of seasonal foods that you see in most places—it's an obsession.
In fact, some confectioners close their regular businesses and start selling only fruitcakes during Christmas. People stand outside of the popular confectionaries like Flurys and Nahoum's for hours! Trust me when I say that this is not the regular appearance of seasonal foods that you see in most places—it's an obsession. It is curious because in India our consumption of cakes has been traditionally limited to birthdays and farewells. Yes, coffee shops have made cakes more popular but they are not part of the usual Indian kitchen repertoire.
So, what makes the city suddenly lust after the mysterious fruitcake? How does this inexplicable substance that we can so comfortably do without for 11 months suddenly become an urgent requirement at Christmas? What happens if we don't eat fruitcake on Christmas? Has anyone experimented? (A Calcuttan answer to that last question will be a vehement negative.) Curious, I searched the internet, but it revealed little about this obsession. All I learned is that during the Victorian era, fruitcake constituted an indispensable element of the English tea spread. I imagine it was this Victorian tea practice that was later introduced in Bengal, a custom that has been symbolically continued since.
But what motivated us to keep this custom alive for centuries? The answer cannot be the love for fruitcake, because, honestly, few people really love the preparation itself. If they did, fruitcake would be available through the year since it doesn't really have any seasonal ingredients. Capitalism can explain the current phenomenon, but this seasonal obsession goes a long, long way back.
Unsatisfied with any of the obvious answers I researched the history of the recipe of traditional fruitcake and figured that over the centuries it became fancier with the addition of "exotic" spices and dried fruits—cloves, cinnamon and ginger, for example—all of which are native to South/Southeast Asia, as well as dates and raisins that come from the Middle East. This transformation of a humble recipe can be correlated with the expansion of British colonisation along the spice trade routes. In other words, historically, the fruitcake is more than just a cake because it has stood witness to several hundred years of India's colonial history and her subsequent independence. The layers of warm spices and dried fruits in the cake, along with the rum, are reminders of the complex history of Bengal's/India's colonisation as well as the cross-cultural impact on and of Indian cooking. Therefore, the fruitcake, in many ways, can be thought of as a victory cake.
Of course we don't go, "Oh yes colonial history" when we bite on to a slice of fruitcake, but that history is implicit.
Of course we don't go, "Oh yes colonial history" when we bite on to a slice of fruitcake, but that history is implicit. In any case, the fruitcake evokes nostalgia. And to understand that one needs a certain privilege—that of having spent a considerable period of time in Kolkata/Bengal. Any tourist that decides to join the madness outside of the cake shops in Kolkata will be largely disappointed with the rum-rich sugary cakes. Yes, they are tasty, but the madness surrounding them can make sense only to Calcuttans. Because the dense cake is like condensed memories of hours of adda; the candied dried fruits that off-set the rich rum flavours of the cake are an expression of the bitter-sweet memories of the city; the parchment paper that sticks to the cake is a reminder of the numerous languid Kolkata afternoons; the whiff of rum signals the sparks of joy in the apparent listlessness of the city. This hybrid Calcutta fruitcake is so popular precisely because it captures the spirit of Kolkata. Where else would you see millions of people irrespective of religion (Kolkata is predominantly Hindu) joining in the festivities surrounding Christmas?
- 1 cup raisins
- cup dried currants
- ½ cup dried cranberries
- ½ cup dried cherries
- ½ cup chopped dried dates (optional)
- 1 cup rum (or orange/apple juice for non-alcoholic option)
- 1 cup orange/apple juice
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 1 ¼ sticks unsalted butter (10 tbsp)
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 1 tsp orange zest
- 1 tsp cinnamon powder
- 1 tsp clove powder
- 1 tbsp grated ginger
- 1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- In a nonreactive metal pot add the dried 1fruits and rum/juice and let soak for 12 hours.
- To the soaked fruits add orange/apple juice, sugar, butter, lemon zest, orange zest, cinnamon powder, clove powder, and ginger and bring to a boil, stirring often. Then reduce the heat and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
- While the mixture cools, preheat oven to 325°F.
- Grease a 10″ non-stick loaf pan with cooking spray or butter.
- Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.
- Now put the fruit mixture in a separate mixing bowl, add flour mixture and incorporate well.
- Lightly beat the eggs in a separate bowl before adding to the cake batter. Mix well with a spatula (not a wire whisk); be careful not to over-mix.
- Fold in the chopped walnuts.
- Pour the cake batter into the pre-greased loaf pan and bake at 325°F for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until a tooth pick inserted comes out with a few moist crumbs.
- Let cool completely before transferring the cake.
- Fruitcake is best made two weeks in advance. Simply wrap the cake in parchment paper or aluminium foil and store in the freezer for two weeks.
This post was previously published on notacurry.com.