Rich plum cake (or Christmas Cake)

I remember spying Christmas puddings in Harrod's last year. It was not quite Christmas, but a section (a small section) of the store was selling all kinds of Christmas goodies. I wanted to bring the pudding back home.  I also told myself that this was not a good idea (it has spices in it / out of budget / not yet Christmas!). I must have picked it up and kept it back on the shelf a couple of times. In the end I settled for a rasperry champagne concotion but couldn't get the pudding out of my mind. I have, since then, read countless pudding recipes, but have not been able to make any (and yes that's a flimsy excuse).

Last month, I finally soaked up the fruits. My mom tells me, that the baker who taught them this cake said that the longer you soak the fruits in rum (or brandy or liquor or...) the better they are. The rum I added to my fruits got soaked up in about 2 days (say, who can't soak up rum anyway?). I went on adding about a tsp of rum every now and then. The fruits soaked that up to, but they retained the rich flavour in the cake; mostly the rum evaporates as you cook the cake.

This is more or less a Christmas cake - more like the traditional British Fruit Cake. The earliest recipes for ‘fruit cakes’ apparently originated in Rome and then flourished all over Europe. Some say that the cake originally began from the Plum Porridge which was eaten on Christmas Eve in Britain. Over the years people added dry fruits and spices to it and to bind the whole thing together, steamed it (which is what the Christmas pudding is). As baking became popular in the 16th century, people also added flour and butter to the mix which tuned into the fruit cake. It goes by different names - Rich Plum Cake, Scottish Whiskey Dundee, French Buche de Noel, German Stollen (or Weihnachtsstollen or Christstollen), Italian Panettone, Dutch  Kerststol and of course just Christmas Cake. Each cake might have a different recipe, but at their core, there are the dried fruits and most have alcohol. The cake is usually dark, rich and crumbly and fancier versions also mean covering the cake in Marzipan or butter-cream. We very rarely make it for Christmas. We made the cake once for Dad's birthday and from them on its become a Birthday Cake.

This particular cake recipe is one of those recipes that are handed down from old bakers to his students. It is up to you to choose the dry fruits to be soaked. If you prefer, don't add the nuts. I use plenty of tutti-frutti - what we get here is largely made of papaya - multicoloured candied sweet squares but in fact tutti-frutti has many varieties. You can even use candied fruits and peel instead. The spices are also optional (or so I like to believe; but the true flavour emerges only when you add the spices). It is completely up to you. There are two ways a fruit cake is made. One is where you make the cake 2-3 weeks in advance, cover it up nicely in parchment paper, and feed it rum or brandy every 2 or 3 days. The other is this, where you soak the fruits for 2-3 weeks before hand and then make the cake.

So yes, making this cake means planning, but I can tell you it’s well worth the wait. It is an unusual recipe - it calls for burnt sugar caramel (and usually burnt sugar is not really an acceptable form of caramel), no specific number of eggs; the ingredients are flexible and is best made by hand (yes, by hand). Don’t worry, the caramel doesn't really taste burnt - it tastes of pure caramel but it gives that beautiful dark brown colour (that I previously attributed only to chocolate...).
Update (04/12/12) - Looking for Christmas pudding? Here's one made with breadcrumbs and butter!

Rich Plum Cake
Recipe from an old bakery in Ooty

You will need -

For the Cake:
1 ½ cup butter – soft, unsalted
1 ½ cup Granulated Sugar
1 tsp baking powder
4-5 Eggs*
2 Cups Flour
½ cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp Vanilla (essence or extract)

For the Caramel:
¾ cup White Granulated sugar
¼ cup water

For the Soaked Dry Fruits:
½ cup Golden Raisins
½ cup chopped cashews
½ cup Raisins
1 cup Tutti Frutti
1 cup Rum (or if you like it really strong make add another ½ cup)
1 tsp Powdered Cinnamon
1 tsp powdered Cloves

To make the cake -

Soaking the fruits -
Finely chop your dry fruits and put them into a tall glass jar. Add the rum  and shake it vigorously so everything is coated. Stir this mixture every two days for even soaking. Add more rum as you go - depending on your taste. Do this at least 2 weeks in advance.

Caramel -
(Disclaimer - This is how I made the caramel, and it worked this way. My caramel has crystallised before this, so I am no kind of caramel expert. You should read this post by David Lebovitz to learn more about caramel)
In a deep bottomed or aluminium pan, add the sugar. Keep the gas on medium heat. The sugar starts  dissolving around the edges. At any point of caramel making, don't stir the sugar with a spoon. Swirl it around using the handles of your pan. Do this so the sugar moves and doesn't clump in one place. Swirl from time to time for an even caramel. The sugar goes from golden to brown and then deep chocolate brown. This is the stage you want. When the sugar gets smokey and really really dark, add the water. Stir this with a spoon this time until all the caramel mixes in with the water. Let this mixture become slightly thick, then cool.

1. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C. Line the base and the sides of a 20 cm square pan with butter paper. Make sure the sides are tall.

2. In a bowl cream the butter and sugar using an electric mixer until it is fluffy – but the sugar has not dissolved.

3. Add eggs one at a time. Beat well until completely incorporated. The principle here is to add eggs until the sugar dissolves completely. This takes up to 6 eggs. I added 5.

4. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix until incorporated.

5. To this mixture add all your soaked fruits and mix with a wooden spoon.

6. Add the prepared caramel to the batter gently fold it in until the batter is an even brown colour.

7. Pour the batter into the prepared baking tin.

8. Bake in the oven for 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.

9. Cool this overnight covered with a tea towel and then cut it into pieces.


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