I don’t know why in the middle of monsoon season I am thinking of Christmas fruit cake. But this fruit cake was one of those childhood indulgences that we waited for all year. Like mangoes and litchis, only rarer. My mother has a colleague who would make this cake every year at Christmas and give us a slice. She had to share it with a lot of friends so the slice was modest and split among the four of us at home, each of us got a couple of bites. But it was such a rich and decadent cake, a beautiful golden brown in color, the dried fruit seeped in rum, the cake itself slightly bittersweet because of the caramel. Those couple of bites left me craving for more the rest of the year. My brother and I adored this cake and I remind my mother’s colleague of this whenever I see her.
When I was into baking full time, the first Christmas after I procured my hand mixer I decided to make this cake. Several hours of research and reading of quite literally hundreds of recipes, led me to this one because it was the most detailed and I felt like the result would be what I was hoping for. I went about shopping for the ingredients days in advance choosing each one carefully. Most of the fruit and nuts were procured from Trader Joe’s, my favorite store after we moved away from Milk Pail market. They have all kinds of food stuff and everything priced very reasonably. The rum I got from Bev Mo. I was tempted to buy the spiced rum as I thought that would make the fruit nice and spicy too, but it was a little too expensive for me. So I settled on a regular dark rum. I bought small bottles of ground cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves from the regular supermarket and ground dry ginger from the Indian store. I also got some brown sugar to substitute some white sugar with, as I thought it would add a deep molassesy (if that’s a word) flavor to the cake. Almost a week before I wanted to bake the cake I soaked the fruit in the rum. It was a lot of fruit, about five cups. I made lists of all the people I wanted to share the cake with. This would be my thing, I would be the plum cake lady!
The recipe involves preparing caramel, a step I was extremely wary of. So I read up on all tips and tricks to preparing caramel and was mentally prepared to make multiple batches in case the first one was not successful. I didn’t even take out all my ingredients because I wanted to wait for the caramel to be ready. I took out my sauce pan and put the sugar and water in it. I had memorized the instructions and followed them exactly. After 7 minutes I was examining the color of the caramel to see if it was cherry wood or not. Once the smell became strong enough that I was convinced if I waited any longer it would become charred wood in color, I took it off the flame and wore my mittens. After all I am known as butter fingers. I had cut off half a finger while chopping a beetroot. If anyone would burn themselves with caramel it would be me. I took the pan to the kitchen sink where the cup of water was waiting for me. I slowly poured the water expecting it to splash and then seize up. It didn’t. I kept swirling to dissolve the caramel into a sauce. I kept waiting for it to seize up and be ruined but it didn’t and two minutes later I had beautiful cherry wood colored caramel sauce. I was stumped by this success on the first attempt. Experience also told me that I should be wary of this. And I had reason to be.
I quickly gathered the rest of my ingredients and took out a couple of pans and lined them with parchment paper. This recipe is supposed to make a 10 inch loaf cake, so I split it into 2 smaller pans because I didn’t have a bigger one. I took out my biggest mixing bowl and creamed the pound of butter, before adding the four cups of sugar to it. It was a lot of butter and sugar to be creamed. I kept creaming hoping that at some point as Alton Brown describes the process, the sugar would not be visible, but I would still be able to feel it when I touched the mixture. Didn’t happen. It was too much sugar. All I could see was sugar. The butter was absorbed into the sugar and I had to feel the sugar to know that the butter was there! But I wasn’t deterred. I continued the rest of the recipe. In went the eggs. At this point I changed the method a little bit. I decided to do the straight creaming method, adding the flour mixture (with the spices and baking powder) in three parts alternating with the liquid (caramel). As I kept adding the flour mixture the batter became so much that it started overflowing the biggest mixing bowl I had which had a capacity of 12 cups! How much batter was I going to have? Still I kept persisting. I pulled out the biggest stock pot I had was five liters and continued the mixing. Once the flour was in, I switched to a wooden spoon and folded in the fruits and nuts which was a workout for the upper arm. I tried my right hand and then switched to the left and back again until the fruit was sufficiently folded in. Finally it was time to put the batter in the pans. One pan filled, two pans filled and still I had batter. I mean a lot of batter. So I took out several small pans and filled them one by one. Still there was batter. But the first set of pans had to go in the oven because the oven had no space. The next hour would have seemed really long except I used it to clean up! Out came the first set of cakes, all at different times because they were all in different shapes and sizes. Once the oven was empty, I filled the second set of pans. The last bit of batter had to go in a six hole non-stick mini-bundt cake pan which technically needed to be cooked at a different temperature than the rest of the pans which were not non-stick. But by this point I didn’t have the patience to do a third oven run for them. So in they went with everyone else and I just kept an eye on them to take them out earlier. Still they burned. But they were just a few. In all I had 17.5 c of batter which gave rise to about 1 square cake, 1 loaf cake, 5 mini-loaves and 6 mini-bundts. They were not all pretty but tasted exactly like my childhood. Bitter with caramel and rum and sweet with the surprise of all the fruit. So apart from the fact that the recipe had the pan size wrong, it was on the money. It gave me immense peace to relive my childhood, but a greater satisfaction to share that joy with all my friends. Let’s just say a lot of people in the Bay Area had Aditi’s plum cake that winter and some even some people visiting from LA, Columbus and India!
That was one long afternoon and a crazy experience. Still that is my favorite cake and I always make it in big proportions to share with everyone. To pay forward the Christmas cheer that a dear aunty gave me as a child. This past Christmas – my first after returning home – I made the cake again. Except this time it was infinitely simpler with my KitchenAid mixer. They were beautiful cakes as over time I have learned to bake them in the right pans as well. I shared it with all our new friends and took some to Kolkata for the in-laws when I traveled there where they were much loved. And I have become the plum cake lady again.