From mixing, maturing and sitting there’s more to plum cake than meets the eye

A little bit of spice, a dash of soaked-in-wine sweetness in a luscious dark brown slice of cake – the plum cake is as synonymous with Christmas as that man in the red suit or the Christmas tree.

Christmas is around the corner and the ubiquitous plum cake has started making an appearance. Christmas cakes, in what has become a hospitality industry ritual, are mixed ceremoniously. Hotel staff and guests smile happily as their gloved hands squish and squash the ingredients and a couple of months later…voila plum cake for Christmas.

The much-photographed mixing is not the first step toward the plum cake, says Rajeev Menon, executive chef Crowne Plaza. The ‘mix’ of dry fruits – raisins, figs, dates, candied orange and ginger peel – is cooked in homemade wine. Spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and star anise are, however, added during the mixing with honey and rum. There is much more to a plum cake than meets the eye and the taste buds, as Rajeev’s tour of the route the mix takes before becoming cake, with pastry chef Jose Mathew as guide, shows us.

More cake

The tour takes us, in caps, into the ground floor kitchen of Crowne Plaza. Rajeev swipes a card and a door opens, the place looks more like a space ship as in one of those sci-fi films. At the bakery, chefs quietly scoop desserts into pretty dishes and shape delicate looking confections. There is a sort of quiet activity, probably because it is just after lunch.

“We make the wine in which the mix is cooked,” Jose informs, “the raisins plump up in the two-odd months that we keep them soaked.”

The ratio of fruit and the other ingredients in that ideal plum cake has to be 50:50 or at least 45:55, this decides the price of the cake. Lesser fruit cheaper cake. The fruits, after the ‘ceremony’, are stored in air tight containers at room temperature. Rajeev offers a peek into what the mix looks like at the end of two months, the intoxicatingly, delicious and sweet smell of the matured mix hits your first.

The mixture is clumpy, gooey and almost black. Nothing about it suggests the final shape it takes. It is not only plum cake that the mix is used for – mince pie, plum pudding and, of course, the steamed Christmas pudding. An offer to taste the concoction is irresistible, it is not cloyingly sweet and bears more than a hint of spices. It tastes like medicine.

Jose started baking the cakes in the last week of November because the cakes have to ‘sit’ for at least a week to mature so that the cake absorbs the flavours. As it sits and absorbs the flavours, it changes colour too. “A freshly baked cake is a lighter shade of brown. A ‘mature’ has the rich brown,” Jose says.

The cake is ‘slow-baked’ for almost two hours (100 minutes) at 130 degree Celsius. “Too much heat too soon will burn the cake from outside and will not be cooked from inside,” says Jose who checks every cake that he bakes. Once the cakes are baked, they are stored again at room temperature (around 20-25 degrees).

We meet the cakes as they sit on shelves in aluminium foiled glory in neat rows awaiting Christmas. It has been a long journey from mix to cake but it all comes down to that burst of flavour as the teeth sink into the lusciousness…Merry Christmas!

More In: Food | Metroplus | Kochi | Features