For those of us who think Christmas cake has only one face—that which came from England—think again. A nation of foodies, India has plenty of desi cakes that can hold their own amongst the finest in the world.
We've heard of Bebinca (a confection of coconut, egg and cashews) from Goa and Mawa cakes (fashioned out of leftover milk solids) that are a gift of the Parsi cafes, but how many of you know of this sinful, booze-fed cake that originates from Allahabad, UP?
Listen up all ye cake connoisseurs out there: from the heart of Allahabad err, we mean Prayagraj, comes a cake as fabulously and unapologetically desi as it gets.
Shakespeare sure knew what he was saying when he said: What's in a name? Whether you choose to call it Prayagraj or Allahabad, the iconic Christmas cake the city makes represents the Ganga Jamuna tehzeeb (cultural amalgamation) of centuries past—a Muslim baker is largely credited with executing the essentially Christian speciality to perfection. This means you can call Allahabad Prayagraj, but the Christmas super confection continues to be called Allahabadi Cake and it packs one helluva punch.
This is why the locals can't do without it—irrespective of their religious moorings. Simply put: it's just like them. A veritable melting pot of assorted influences and endless colour. And superbly individualistic. Just like the kachoris they sell.
The great bake that takes the cake
Constructed out of dried fruits and nuts soaked in rum, petha (a typically north Indian soft candy from ash gourd) and local marmalades, the fruit cake gets its distinctive flavour from the desi ghee and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, mace and ginger.
Leading the way would be the city's iconic Bushy's bakery in Civil Lines, which first started baking these cakes in 1963. Owned by Mohammed Aslam, the making of the cake is preceded by a unique process—the customer brings his/her own ingredients—and amidst much laughter and chatter—the cake is baked in front of them.
The preparation is largely manual, which adds to the flavour of the cake and makes it all the more special even as the aroma of the cake wafts through the corridors. "While most of the demand for the cake is around Christmas, we do make it on order as and when the customer asks for it. Waiting for the cake is a pleasurable time for families; they book the same time slot as their friends, so they can gather here. Plus, we take the trouble of hand-mixing it. It is time-consuming but so worth it," says Tariq, Aslam's nephew. As a result, no two cakes taste the same. In an era of machine mixing here's to hand-crafted love!
Selling at Rs 550 for a kilo, the cake goes to other cities as well. "We bake around three to four thousand or more in the month of December and to meet demands, the bhattis have to run 24x7."
How the Allahabadis baked history
The Allahabadi cake has its origins in the fact that the city had a sizeable Christian population thanks to the presence of the railways. For those not in the know: a sizeable number of the Anglo-Indian community worked for the railways and in their free time, came up with winsome gastronomic creations that convincingly added their Indian identity to westernized preparations.
"Three huge bakeries dominated the space," says Allahabadi resident Roshel Perrera. 'Mallu, Mathu and Bushy's. Of the three, only Bushy's has survived and thrived." Interestingly, the name Bushy was a nickname for Aslam's father, the affable Mohammed Jumerati who got his name from his thick beard and consequently passed the same on to his beloved bakery.
And it is thanks to his culinary experiments under the guidance of a venerable old Anglo lady from the Railway colony that the Allahabadi Cake came into being. "It was the Christmas season of 1963. Our regular customer Miss Barnett had an ace or two up her sleeve. As she came to us to carry out her baking, she brought out a whole lot of petha along with the murabba (marinated fruit). My father was astounded. Whoever had heard of petha in cake? But she firmly told him to do as he was told. The result was magic. The cake went on to acquire legendary status," reminisces Aslam.
As things stand, you can't just have a Bushy's Allahabadi cake; you've got to wait for it. Book your slot, wait patiently for your turn and then bring your ingredients along-and watch the Bushy's staff work their unique magic on it. "What gives it a flavour of its own are the wooden ovens atop a coal furnace. No electric nonsense for us; slow and steady wins the race for hearts. Perfection takes time," expresses Aslam.
Perrera says the wait is worth it. "When we send it to our relatives abroad, they say its' nothing like they've tasted before. And to think this cake that regularly features among the top Christmas cakes of the world comes from the heart of Prayagraj. That's India for you."
The marmalades, murabba and preserved fruit are best bought at the city's Loknath ki Galli and the ghee best made at home. "Yellow butter is too runny and the taste is not the same. Why even use it when most Indians know how to make ghee? It is the one ingredient that makes the Allahabadi cake stand out," says Aslam.
Allahabad can become Prayag, but the cake and its make are Allahabadi!