Cake mixing has become a celebratory event across India in recent times. This is not the home-baked cakes and muffins and pastries one is talking about. Or the tarts and the chocolate cakes one buys at cut-throat prices across the counters of prettily decorated cake shops. Cake-mixing is an event unto itself and brings people together in fun and frolic to surrounding one of our favourite delicacies – The Christmas Cake. Christmas is no fun without the traditional Christmas cake. And making it is no quick and easy task -- preparations begin months in advance for that. To mark the birth of Jesus Christ, swanky hotels here organize cake-mixing ceremonies to spread the warmth of the festive season. People from different walks of life come together for such ceremonies and though it began with the Christians, it has now spread out to touch people belonging to all communities that make it a secular celebration to participate in and enjoy.
Cake mixing is a ritual that follows a definite process of putting the elaborate ingredients together, mixing them and then waiting till the mixture is ready for baking and distributing to friends, family and relatives. It has its own history and over time, has become an inseparable part of our culture and our Christmas celebrations. Cake-mixing is a harbinger of good tidings and happiness. The history of the event of cake mixing dates back to 17th century in Europe.
The ceremony also marks the arrival of the harvest season. During this time, lots of fruits and nuts were harvested and used in the making of the traditional plum cake. The stirring ceremony is part of an age-old Christmas tradition of cake mixing and one making wishes for the New Year. The ingredients of the festive fruit cake are mixed with wine and liquor in advance so that the ingredients can develop aroma and taste. Originally a family affair, it is for many years celebrated within organizations to spread camaraderie and goodwill.
Some stories go that the cake mixing ceremony was born after World War II and was later shaped by flour mills that had a surplus of four. Others say that it was brought into popular culture in the 1930s traced back to a surplus of molasses and not flour. Decades back, a company in Pittsburg, USA called P. Duff and Sons is believed to have created the first ever commercially produced cake mix which is not exactly the Christmas cake but more mundane and rooted to the common man’s conception of the cake. On December 10, John D. Duff applied for a patent for an “invention that relates to a dehydrated flour for use in making pastry products and to a process of making the same.” The application comprised of a mix for gingerbread to create a powder of wheat flour, molasses, sugar, shortening, salt, baking soda, powdered whole egg, ginger and cinnamon that the home cook could defrost and/or rehydrate with water and then bake it.
According to a surviving pamphlet believed to date to 1933 or 1934, Duff’s mixes came in several varieties; some of them not quite cake, like nut bread, bran muffin, and fruit cake. But two flavors would be instantly recognizable to any Duncan Hines devotee—devil’s food and spice cake. The mixes sold for 21 cents per 14-ounce can. By the end of the 1940s, more than 200 companies were putting out cake mixes, with the lion’s share going to Betty Crocker or Pillsbury. Interestingly, while General Mills and Duncan Hines went the add-eggs route, Pillsbury stuck to the just-add-water method and only phased it out later..
Cake mixing however, is poles apart from cake baking which happens much after cake mixing is done. It is a pickling process, sort of, when the mixed ingredients are allowed to marinate in the juices and beverages for 40 days before baking can begin. According to Rahul Arora who owns a few restaurants in Kolkata called Bon Appétit and Prana respectively, cake-mixing is a must for his eatery every year. The ingredients that go into the cake mixing do not include flour and eggs. So, the mixing takes place with cinnamon, clove, mace, rum,, brandy, whisky, wine, honey, golden syrup, raisin, black raisin, cashew, walnut, almond, candied fruit, cherries, black currant, dates figs and prunes.
A mixture of the ingredients is hand cleaned and chopped and then soaked for 40 days in the alcohol in a dark room and then baked with a rich buttery batter and baked into an aromatic cake. The recipe of cake changes from community to community, household to household and so on. The Christmas cake is aged and lots of alcohol is added. It adds warmth to the cake for the winter and also springs from the belief that the soaked fruit if kept year long in which alcohol is a preservative) it brings good luck. What started as a warmth and bonding exercise, now symbolizes merriment.
When asked how many cakes will come out of the massive mix preserved in a large, blue, plastic drum which is packed with cellophane paper from top to bottom including the lid and the sides, Rahul says, “We will be baking not less than 240 small Christmas Plum Cakes after 40 days and distribute it among family, relatives and friends.” the plum cake is a perfect energy food. England loves this cake so much that no tea is complete without a slice of the rich cake. One may note however, that this is a community event that can rarely be done at home since the mixing needs massive quantities of different ingredients not possible or affordable within a family situation.
Cake mixing is a big event in all big hotels in metro cities in India. Announced days in advance, food critics, professional caterers and cooks are invited to participate in the cake-mixing ceremony around six weeks before Christmas. For Flury’s in Kolkata, cake-mixing is a big event. The same goes for Fortune JP Palace Hotel in Mysore and many more.
“The traditional Christmas fruit mixing well and truly heralds the start of the festive season. When you smell the warm aromas of cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg and see the lusciously soaked blackcurrants, sultanas, figs and prunes, the immediate thought of the most widely celebrated festival of the world, the Christmas comes to mind. Also for the baker, the fruit mixing signifies the start of the busiest period of the entire year, and by far, when batches upon batches of baked festive goods are produced and sold”- says Executive Chef Vikas Kumar of Flurys.
Sometimes, the celebration of cake-mixing is enriched when the eating house/ restaurant weaves into the ceremony a socially meaningful agenda. Flurys for instance, enhanced the festivities by inviting the renowned music band Cactus to entertain 20 children from a NGO called New Light where the children could participate in the cake-mixing with lovely music playing in the background. Legend goes that Mixing the ingredients is not all that simple. It is an art in itself because the ingredients are mixed from ‘East to West’ (as is the path of the Sun). So go ahead guys and gals and kids – organize a cake-mixing ceremony in your neighbourhood by gathering your friends and neighbours to pitch in with different ingredients, vessels and labour and make it one big celebration of the heralding of Christmas.
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time.