The fascinating story of fruit cake

In the panoply of Christmas treats, the original celebratory cake may have lost its stardom in the West — not in India though. Here’s what has extended the Roman innovation’s shelf life. 
Kainaz messman of theobroma tweaked the traditional fruit cake recipe to come up with an eggless and booze-free version.
Kainaz Messman of Theobroma tweaked the traditional fruit cake recipe to come up with an eggless and booze-free version

A few years ago, when Kainaz Messman, owner of Theobroma, began working on an eggless, alcohol-free version of her classic Christmas fruit cake, it left many sceptical. Fruit cake through its lifespan in India has seen a variety of inspired versions — including Pondicherry’s decadent Vivikam, Goa’s rose-scented Baath and Allahabad’s unique spice cake made with ghee, to name a few — but none without the mandatory spirits. In fact, even the 130-year-old kadalipazham (an indigenous breed of sweet banana) flavoured cake of Thalassery, which is said to be the first Indian version of the dry English fruit cake made by the well-known baker Mambally Bapu, used a brew made of coconut apple and a Malabar spice blend to give it that delicious local charm instead of the suggested French brandy from erstwhile Mayyazhi (Mahe). Since then, alcohol in fruit cake for Christmas has been a must. Even the heirloom recipe that Kainaz follows to prepare her stash has alcohol, “two of them to give it that nice buzz at the end.” 

Fascinatingly, despite the traditional recipe that earned the brownie queen her brownie points for making one of the city’s finest fruit cakes that was light with this unmatched fruity spiciness and festive cheer, Kainaz soon realised the vast potential of an eggless, spirit-free version. Buoyed by constant demand for something ‘lighter’ yet with that trademark Messman taste, she began looking for that perfect alternative. After months of working on different methods, she finally found the answer in orange juice, which, says the seasoned baker, “works beautifully at bringing in that fruity aroma along with that warm spiciness that makes fruit cake such a festive treat.” The orange juice was only half the battle won — the cake, recalls Kainaz, “couldn’t be sliced”. Back to the work station, and she emerged with an almond flour mix that helped stabilise the cake’s structure. The eggless fruitcake with a distinct aftertaste of orange rekindled the city’s love for fruit cake, a city whose tastes were gradually shifting to lighter versions like the “German stollen, which we make in chocolate too.”

Remarkably, Kainaz wasn’t the only sweet specialist working towards transforming the traditional fruit cake to suit the current palate. Chef Subhayan Das of Hello Pumpkin too had been at work tweaking the classic wheel, one tiny ingredient at a time. In his attempt to marry history and functionality, Chef Das experimented with different flours and, much like the legendary Bapu, shifted towards alternative sugar options like the pumpkin and carrot puree to give the cake that sweet punch minus the excess. Chef Das’ fruit cake version, while based on an old-school recipe of honey cake, scores well on lightness, and has this nice fruity aroma to it courtesy the caramelised fruit rinds made in-house. 

A typical english fruit cake
A typical English fruit cake

Historically, rinds were introduced into the fruit cake along with candied fruit during the Tudor era when white sugar became readily available and was used as a preserve for all kinds of fruit. The fruit cake, which until then was this Pompeii-style bread made with honey, dry fruits, coarse grain flour and spirit (including mead) and had a distinct but faint hint of sweetness, now took on a richer, darker and sweeter tone. It was this version of the fruit cake, says veteran patisserie expert Chef Avijit Ghosh of Smoor Chocolates, “which inspired not just the English Christmas Cake that travelled to India with the officers and their visiting wives, but also catapulted the fruit cake as the wedding cake served during breakfast for Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and, more recently, Prince William, earning it the moniker ‘queen of cakes’. Known to get better when aged, story has it that Queen Victoria waited a whole year before tasting her fruit cake that was made to the Empress’ whim and fancy.” 

According to chef avijit ghosh of smoor chocolates fruit cake travelled to india with english officers and their wives
According to Chef Avijit Ghosh of Smoor Chocolates fruit cake travelled to India with English officers and their wives

The orange rind, in fact, continues Chef Ghosh, “became a distinct feature of the English fruit cake for most of the 18thand 19th centuries when it rose to prominence as a celebratory cake. Curiously, it is the 18th-century cake that travelled with the British to different colonies and kingdoms inspiring a slew of variants including stollen, a German take on the fruit cake; Italian panettone, which is more of a loaf than a cake; French bûche de Noël (yule log), Nicaragua’s Pio Quinto, Sri Lanka’s cashew-crammed semolina Christmas cake, and the slew of Indian spiced, rummy fruit cakes. 

According to Murugan Sailappan, Executive Pastry Chef, Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru, “the English fruit cake (rather, Christmas Cake) that came to our bakeries around the late-19th century was loaded with candied fruit, nuts, spices, sugars and flour, and could travel with ease. But, by Indian standards, it was still very dry and needed much work.”

Chef murugan sailappan of four seasons hotel bengaluru says the fruit cake was tweaked in india to be less dry
Chef Murugan Sailappan of Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru says the fruit cake was tweaked in India to be less dry

Thanks to our intuitive bakers back then, continues Chef Sailappan, “we had plenty of innovation that turned the English Fruit cake into the spicy, fruity, rummy treat we call plum cake. The variation came not only in the form of candied fruits, but also the spice mix that was more complex and robust than back in England. In a Kerala-style cake, for instance, the cake is made with dry fruits soaked in brandy, rum, caramel syrup and spices, and is dense and rich; while the one from the Iyengar bakeries is airy, uses different types of dried fruit, and is eggless. In fact, the cakes get their moistness from curd, which also gives them that light-on-the-palate feel, so you can eat more.”

Fruit cake at four seasons hotel bengaluru
Fruit cake at Four Seasons Hotel Bengaluru

Likewise, adds Chef Ghosh, “is the case with the Allahabadi Christmas Cake. Created by Mohammad Aslam, this variant of fruit cake is made with dried fruits and nuts soaked in rum, petha (candied ash gourd) and local marmalades, and gets its characteristic flavour profile and moistness from the desi ghee and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, mace and ginger.”

While local bakers played a monumental role in curating our perception of fruit cake — and its different formats including the popular tutti-frutti tea cake — for the likes of Chef Ghosh, a traditionalist to the core, fruit cake is a melding of the English Christmas Cake with Indian flavours. Explains Chef Ghosh, “While the baking technique and the use of candies and the process of macerating dried and candied fruit in rum and brandy remains sacrosanct and very English along with the use of orange rind, for which I use the peels of mandarin oranges, it is the spice mix that makes all the difference to the cake — and gives it that holiday cheer that we associate with Christmas.” Like his predecessors, the Smoor Chocolate expert’s spice blend begins at least “a week before the cakes are made, when whole spices are brought in, washed, dried and then slow roasted till there is that slight waft of that heady warm aroma and then they are pounded into a powder to be blended with the sweetmeat or plum as it was called back in the day before being incorporated into the cake.”

But what really works for the cake, continues Chef Ghosh, “is the process of resting, which lends the fruit cake that unique shine on top and that perfect, Christmassy bite. Of course, cooling down ensures the cake can be sliced, which isn’t possible when it is fresh out of the oven.” 

Chef vikas seth the fruit cake's long shelf life is the reason for its popularity
Chef Vikas Seth the fruit cake’s long shelf life is the reason for its popularity

A fruit cake’s ability to evolve while ageing along with its shelf stability, says Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sanchez, “is one of the key reasons fruit cake in the past has doubled up as a functional food, and has survived all these years without much change to the original composition. In fact, the reason fruit cake or plum cake is so loved in India is its ability to travel and be stored for long periods without refrigeration. This ensured that the treat could reach distant family members with the taste improving with time. It is the prime reason it became a part of every Christmas ritual across the globe.”

In fact, every Christmas, Chef Seth reprises the traditional Mexican fruit cake that is a part of the Las Posadas celebration as well as of celebratory feasts through the season, best had with their famous punch, Ponche Navideño. 

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

Read more. 

Iconic Christmas desserts and dishes

Rum pa pum your way through Christmas with these exquisite cocktails