While one automatically begins to associate the ongoing festive season with sweets and treats of all kinds, somehow it’s the decadent Christmas cake that tops the list. For eons, this rich plum and rum based cake with a dense, moist texture and dark caramel hue has been the benchmark for what a holiday treat should look, feel and taste like.
A close cousin of the British steamed plum pudding, this baked treat is pretty much the “gold standard” of what a Christmas treat should look like. But still, whether we like it or not, it’s colonial Western, with very little to do with India, both in terms of its ingredient list and cooking technique. Fortunately, here in India, unbeknownst to many, we also have a neat little cache of purely indigenous, shuddh desi cakes that you may want to include in your Christmas dinner or New Year’s Eve party. And we’re not just talking about the sweet variety, as some are made with interesting ingredients like lentils and even one with prawns! Here is our selection of a few:
A close cousin of the traditional Christmas cake, this Indianized riff sees local ingredients like Agra ka petha (sugar pumpkin) instead of candied zest and tutti-frutti. same goes for butter (instead of butter). It also has a hint of spice like son (dried ginger powder) and javitri (mace) among others. One of the best places to try this very Indian cake is Bushy’s on Kanpur Road in Allahabad. This 60-year-old modest little bakery still makes a delicious Indian version of a traditional fruit cake with nutmeg, sauf (fennel seeds), cinnamon, caraway seeds, butter and jam which comes from Loknath ki Galli, Allahabad Food Street.
Mostly made in the shape of a cupcake, this one is about as Indian as a cake can get! Whole milk powder, also called khoya either mawa it is the main ingredient in the moist, eggless cake that is garnished with cardamom seeds. You are most likely to find this cake in Irani and Parsi bakeries in Mumbai and Pune, such as Merwan’s and Sassanian Bakery.
Very similar to a Middle Eastern basbousa, bhaat cake is a Goan specialty that is the sum of its parts of salted butter, eggs, grits, and desiccated coconut. A doppelganger of the bhaat is the East Indian tali sweet that uses an additional ingredient in the form of ground almonds in rose water.
Like the Allahabad cake, this one is also not just purely indigenous, but is also named after a city. Yes, also known as the Pondicherry cake, the vivikum cake is prepared by the French-Indian Christians of Puducherry for Christmas. But that does not mean that one cannot savor it all year round. Just visit bakeries like La Boulangerie and Baker Street in the city’s French Quarter to give it a try.
Made with butter, eggs, grits, walnuts, brandy-soaked raisins and tangy lemon zest, it’s the alcohol in the cake that helps extend its shelf life. Often enough to see it last into the first few weeks of the New Year, even!
This tasty purely vegetarian pie has iterations in both Gujarat and Rajasthan. Gujarati hand to hand it is made with wheat flour, sesame seeds, lentils, and often contains a bottle gourd filling. Usually steamed in a special hand to hand cooking, for convenience, is often baked in an oven or even pressure-cooked. Eaten mainly as a traditional born (snack) item for breakfast or afternoon tea, hand to hand always served with a chutney. Being the sweet papaya the most common. I call handvathe Rajasthani version uses much more vegetables like carrots, peas and cabbage which are mixed with gram flour and spice mix and steamed or baked.
On the salty side…
Made with fresh shaved coconut, rice flour, brown sugar, yeast, and eggs, the Apa de camarao, which literally means “prawn pie,” gets its name from its crustacean filling. A pre-cooked, spicy and lightly spiced prawn masala reichado is spread on half the semi-baked coconut rice flour batter, while the cake pan is still in the oven. The reichado is then covered with more batter and baked until the cake is fully cooked and golden. The prawn filling acts as a perfect savory complement to the fluffy and slightly sweet coconut cake layers, making the combination irresistible, all topped with hard-boiled egg quarters.