Let me begin by wishing everyone a fun filled holiday season with family, friends and lots of good food! I was just wondering how to start this post when I realised that many of my posts seem to be about what I don’t like!
I can’t help it if I do not like something and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I’m not very fussy about food in general, but there are a few foods I really dislike and this post is going to be about one of them – the Kerala Christmas time staple and a favourite with most, the Plum Cake. In the course of the last month or so, I have discovered that there seem to be only two ways to feel about this cake. You either love it or dislike it, but you cannot be indifferent to it!
If you live in Kerala, there is just no escaping this Christmas fruit cake. In fact, it’s not quite Christmas in Kerala without the plum cake. Even you don’t celebrate Christmas like us, friends and neighbours will send you Christmas cake with all their love. All this is a good thing if you love this cake, as what could better than a little cake but even more cake?
Funnily enough, the Kerala Plum Cake has no plums in it and it has always puzzled me why it continues to be called so. After much searching, The Oxford Companion to Food solved the mystery for me. Apparently, in the good old days, the British fruitcake used contain as much as half of its weight in a variety of dried fruit which was referred to as “plumb” or “plum” which is what gives this particular fruit cake its name.
In Kerala, this Christmas cake is a dense deep brown coloured spiced cake that is a choc-a-block full of dried fruit and nuts. The brown colour (and a very nice flavour too) comes from a caramel sauce which is made and added to the cake batter. The fruits, nuts and spices typically used in this cake are those found locally so raisins, dates, candied and coloured peel, green and red coloured tutti frutti, cashewnuts, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
Traditionally the dried fruit and nuts are soaked in rum for a month and then used in the cake. This soaking not only adds to the flavour of the cake but also helps preserve it for a long time. Back home in Kerala, about a month before Christmas, all the big bakeries, star restaurants and anybody who can get into the act does the mixing and soaking of dried fruit and nuts in rum. The process has become quite a public event these days with public participation and much fanfare.
Now we come to the part about my not liking this cake. I do not like this cake because it reeks (or should I say stinks) of rum. I also cannot stand the candied peel and the awful red and green stuff that usually dots the inside of the cake. So I have never even dreamt of making my own fruitcake. I mean, what sort of a fruit cake (as in crazy) would I be to want to make one?
My husband, on the other hand, loves the stuff! When we lived in Kerala, it didn’t matter that I never made one because we would have so much fruitcake coming home on Christmas day, he would be eating it right into the New Year. We don’t get that Plum Cake here, but we do get some excellent Christmas cake in Goa which more than made up for the lack of the other kind.
This year, my husband is in a place where he’s unlikely to lay his hands on authentic Christmas cake so I decided to bake a fruit cake and send it to him. That was the start of my search for a Kerala style Plum Cake that doesn’t need alcohol and the awful red/ green stuff parading as candied fruit, if there existed such a thing.
A request on Facebook had Ammini Ramachandran pointing me to her own recipe, and also sent me a friend’s recipe and one to make my own candied peel. I wanted to start with an authentic (it is reasonably so to my mind, looking at the ingredients that go into her cake) plum cake recipe. I say this because I could see that her recipe uses frut, nuts and spices that are normally found in Kerala. Now there must at least a 1000 different “authentic” recipes, as every family who makes these cakes every year would have a recipe they swear by.
I then went ahead and put my spin on Ammini’s recipe. I didn’t have the time to make my own candied peel but had some excellent candied fruit on hand and decided to use them instead. I used unsweetened orange juice instead of rum/ brandy and used Ammini’s method of cooking the fruit and nuts in it instead of the month long soaking usually followed for this cake. I used golden raisins as we don’t really likes the black ones which can be tart. The Afghani/ Irani greenish brown varieties are the best and are very sweet.
I also added cardamom to the spice mix which is not usually done. I cut down on the butter a bit because I get my butter in 100gm slabs. I used light brown sugar in my cake and cut down on the quantity a bit because sweetness of the candied fruit. I got the best fruit cake I have ever eaten (remember, I don’t like fruit cake?). It tasted great, was moist yet lighter than the average more dense fruit cake. It had a nice crumb yet was firm enough to slice easily. This cake is a keeper and is going to be the one I bake every time I need to make a Christmas fruit cake.
It is the season for giving and perhaps the perfect time for me to giveaway two more books. Sellers Publishing were kind enough to send me extra copies to giveaway to my readers, along with my review copies.
The first book I’m giving away is “America’s Little Italys: Recipes and Traditions” by Sheryll Bellman. Sheryl Bellman is the also the author of Through The Shopping Glass and America’s Great Delis. Passionate about food and food history writing, she has written for many magazines and been featured on NPR. She lives in New York City and attributes her interest in deli culture to growing up in corned beef deprived Arizona!
America’s Little Italys is not just another cookbook with Italian food recipes but much more than that. It is based on the Italian-American immigrant experience, their food cultural history and the founding of Little Italys as their neighbourhoods are referred to, in various parts of the US. The book makes for good reading with nostalgic write-ups, beautiful black and white photographs full of old world charm as well as Italian family restaurant recipes. The book invites you to a celebration of the Italian immigrant past in the US through the stories of the beginnings and evolution of many modern-day Italian restaurants across 14 major cities in the US. Some of the cities covered are New York City (including Brooklyn and The Bronx), Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, San Diego and New Orleans.
Also included are over recipes from over 80 modern-day Italian restaurants, which have been handed down the generations and many of which are their signature dishes. The book also has lots of interesting historical information which tells us that the first Espresso machine was made in France and the first industrial pasta machine in the US was built by a Frenchman in Brooklyn. He apparently dried his strands of spaghetti in the sunshine on his roof!
I cooked the Mona Lisa Pasta Primavera (from the Mona Lisa Italian Restaurant and Deli, San Diego) and the Chicago Style Pizza (from Tony Nitti’s Bar-B-Que, Chicago) and have to say they were very good. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take any pictures to tempt you with.
The other book I’m giving away is “500 Cheeses: The only cheese compendium you’ll ever need” by Roberta Muir, which is a guide to cheeses from around the world. Roberta Muir has an educational background in gastronomy, is a trained cheese judge, a food writer, a restaurant reviewer and manages the Sydney Seafood School.
500 Cheeses is a part of the 500 Series of books from Sellers Publishing. As is the case with the other books in this series, it is a well organised and presented book with beautiful pictures and also has a page on how to use the book. This book de-mystifies the world of cheese and begins with an introduction to cheeses, then goes on to explain how cheese is made with advice on how to select store and serve cheese.
The book is further divided in to chapters on Fresh Cheeses, Stretched-Curd Cheeses, Bloomy Rind Cheeses, Washed Rind Cheeses, Semi-Soft Cheeses, Blue-Veined Cheeses and Semi-Hard & Hard Cheeses. Each entry begins with a flag of the country from which it comes, and then includes description its history, characteristic appearance, texture and flavour. There is also some information on its available sizes, affinage and tasting notes as well as food and beverage pairing.
I would have liked it even better if there were a couple of recipes using the cheeses in the book, but I guess that is asking too much for a book of this size. This is definitely a book you want on your cookbook shelf if you love cheese.
I will be giving away a copy of the above books to two randomly selected lucky readers. If you would like to try your luck at winning one of these books, all you have to do is to leave a comment at this post telling me what your favourite Italian food and/ or cheese is. Yes, that’s all you have to do.
I love Italian food and its not easy to choose a favourite but I do like Tiramisu (this version of it) and Aglio e Olio (Pasta with garlic and olive oil). My favourite cheese has to be Paneer (Indian fresh milk cheese) and Cheddar comes a close second.
I will keep this giveaway open till the 7th of January, 2011 as I know many of you would be busy with the festive season and not be able to get here to leave a comment till later. This giveaway is open to everyone who cares to leave a comment here (Bloggers and non-bloggers are welcome, both Indian and international) as I will ship the books anywhere in the world.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS GIVEAWAY IS CLOSED.