Here’s why we think Chef Vikas Seth’s (Culinary Director, HopsHaus) plum cake has the right makings of ending this year – and how.
By Madhulika Dash; Pictures courtesy Chef Vikas Seth
Plum Cakes. Of all the possible fruit cakes that the Western culture has come out with, this dry-fruit laden, spice-rich cake remains by far remained not just the most popular -but also curiosity inducing. Think about it; this dark, heavy cake, whose journey begins with the now popular cake mixing ritual – it is just too dense, especially the one that the British popularised and we adopted, often can leave you feeling tipsy, thanks to the insane amount of alcohol used in the making – and yet appeals to all kinds of palates.
Even those who are otherwise not too fond of the teatime fruit cake, prefer it over any other treat during the seasons’ greetings. Part of it, one may say, is the tradition. Plum cake making and eating has been a tradition across India that is old as Christianity in India. Another part may say, it is the season feel – after all, rum, cinnamon, nutmeg is best enjoyed during the time of the year. But for many like Chef Vikas Seth, the endearment of plum cake is its making.
Says the culinary director, “Unlike other Christmas treat that is part of the feast table, it is the plum cake which embodies the essence of a festival by bringing people together. And it all begins with the famous cake mixing where everyone gets together to make the celebratory ingredient of this imperial treat. The simple act of pouring huge quantities of wine and spirits over mounds of dry fruits and nuts doesn’t only infuse a sense of belonginess but is also cathartic as you let go of all things bad of a year. And that goodness is what comes out in this deliciously extravagant cake, which by the way was also the wedding cake at both Princess Diana and Princess Kate wedding.”
Fascinatingly, it is a feeling that many associate with plum cake, including food writers, who find the dish a brilliant composition of tradition, beliefs and evolution. Take the history of Plum Cake itself. Said to be first made by the Romans, who were expert bakers, the first iteration of this fruit cake was called Satura, and was made of a collection of nuts, pomegranate seeds and honey. Made by incorporating air through whisking rather than yeast, it marked the beginning of soft breakfast cakes that could be taken on a journey too.
As a matter of fact, Satura, which is said to have inspired many a fruit cake including the decadent Ashkenazi Jewish Pflaumenkuchen or Zwetschgenkuchen was for long part of the ration of the royal army. It is said that there were special moulds made for Alexander’s army to carry this cake on their way to conquest. While the original fruit cake made its journey through the world taking on new muses and ingredients, it wasn’t till the 17 th century that Britain began to make its own treat thanks to introduction of dry fruits and nuts from the Mediterranean countries. Given that most of the ingredients was only to be afforded by the affluent, the plum cake (where the plum represented the treasure of dry fruits, spices and nuts) remained the privy of the rich and royal – with crumbs percolating down to the servants, who made a jiggly pudding of it and would douse it with the wine they got for the season and anything extra that came as part of the Christmas hamper.
The class-division and the feeble attempt at banning the making of Plum Cake did little to dent the popularity of the cake, which soon became a reason for the small neighbourhood to pool their meagre resources and have their own baker bake it as a season’s goodwill. Plum cakes became so popular that it became a part of every Victorian Tea party and special occasion. Such was the craziness that in 1881 Colonel Henry-Herbert called it “a national institution”; and it became too under the aegis of Queen Victoria, who is said to have waited a year to eat the fruitcake she received for her birthday because she felt it showed restraint, moderation and good taste. It was the Victorian version that reached India, became a standard for Christmas celebrations in the forces and eventually, says Chef Seth, “was adopted by the hotels, who continued with the traditional recipe of making the plum cake.”
That was till a few years ago, says Chef Seth, who now gives his plum cake versions, a different tweak every year, inspired by his travels and new discoveries of traditional styles starting by adding the ‘a pinch of salt’ to enhance the aroma. “The beauty of plum cake is that even when this fruit cake travelled the world, it took on a more localised versions with one spice or fruit joining in the medley. In Italy, it became a butter-rich soft cake; in India, its spice mixes often has the hint of clove to it. Of course, the rum-marination gives it that intense sweetness.”
This year however, Chef Seth decided to go Irish and Iyengar with his plum cake for that extra perk needed. Explaining the slight twist in the tale, he says, “don’t worry it is the same good old plum cake, just more aromatic and with local spices, but in presentation, we have reverted to the 60s with flambé.” Each portion served at our restaurant is topped with meringue peaks and flambé-ed with whiskey.
There is something joyfully balmy about flambé, says the culinary specialist, “it isn’t just table-side theatrics but an act that helps you let go and yet rejoice in the thrill of expecting something new. And that new is the plum cake, which takes on a tasteful flight with the soft egg white peaks – making this cake, “just what the doc order for 2020.”