This unusual Christmas cake recipe has stood the test of time

The tastefully-decorated residence of the Alberts in Aruna Nagar, Tiruchi has all the hallmarks of a Christian household getting ready for the festive season. But it’s not just the Yuletide-themed knick-knacks and pictures dotting the shelves and walls; there is something more that makes this month special for Mrs. Devina Albert: the fragrance of freshly baked Christmas cake.

Devina’s cake stands out because of its recipe: a morsel of food history handed down by one feisty baker in the family over 50 years ago.

“This recipe is from Mrs. Helen Vijaya Gnanaolivu, my uncle’s mother-in-law,” says Devina. Born to Parsi-Brahmin parents in 1924, in Coimbatore, Helen Vijaya became a Christian when she married Indian Army officer Lt. Colonel Gnanaolivu. The couple spent their retirement years first in Bangalore, and then in the United States, with their daughters Geetha and Sujatha and their families.

An avid baker and social worker, Mrs. Helen, popularly known as Aunty Gnanaolivu or Grandma Gnanaolivu to family and friends, passed away in 2011 at the age of 87. Her husband died early this year.

In an unusual, and perhaps very Indian twist, this recipe uses equal amounts of refined flour (maida) and semolina (rava), to create a cake that is both moist and filling. What’s more, it doesn’t require any raising agents such as baking powder or yeast.

For the past 20 years, Devina has been buying the key ingredients – the dried fruits – from a small store at Main Guard Gate in Tiruchi. “I usually get the dried fruits by late November, so that they are cleaned, deseeded and chopped finely before they are marinated in brandy,” she says.

Online research and some cooking experts we consulted suggest substituting the brandy with a fruit juice like orange or cranberry for a non-alcoholic variation.

“I start baking from the first week of December, for visitors and friends. I also make murukkus during Christmastime. My husband (ophthalmologist Dr. Sathya Albert) feels homemade snacks are far superior to store-bought goodies, so December is a busy time for me,” says the mother of two who juggles choir practice and volunteer work with baking in the run-up to Christmas.

The recipe’s popularity also often reminds Devina of Mrs. Helen.

“Aunty was a nice person, and everyone warmed up to her instantly,” she recalls. “Baking was her passion, and she used to personally distribute her cakes and other goodies to needy people – she was driving even at the age of 82! Some four generations of our family and many friends make this cake every year during the festive season,” says Devina.

“It’s amazing how one person’s recipe has come down the years to so many people.”

Aunty Gnanaolivu’s Christmas Fruit Cake

(Makes 2 cakes – 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pans)

What you need

Maida (refined flour) – 225 grams

Rava (semolina) – 225 grams

Sugar – 500 grams

Butter – 500 grams (use cooking butter like Hatsun or Aavin Salt-Free)

Eggs – 10

Salt – ¾ tsp

Vanilla essence – 2 tsps

Brandy – ½ cup (100 ml)

Adjust sugar if substituting with fruit juice.

Caramel syrup

Sugar - 250 grams

Water - 100 ml

Dried fruit

Glace cherries – 100 grams

Preserved orange peel – 100 grams

Candied ginger – 100 grams

Red Tutti-Frutti – 100 grams

Currants OR black raisins – 100 grams

Cooking instructions

Step 1

The raisins should be cleaned and deseeded if necessary. Chop the fruits into small pieces and put them in a non-reactive compact container (glass, enamel, ceramic or stainless steel). Add the brandy, mix well and close the lid. The fruit must soak for a week (maximum up to a month). It should be used on the day of baking.

To make the caramel syrup, heat the sugar in a saucepan, scraping the bottom continuously with a wooden spoon and breaking lumps as they form.

When it turns into a brown liquid remove from the stove. Use oven gloves to avoid burns and carefully add the water, stirring continuously to get a thick brown liquid caramel syrup. Allow to cool.

Step 2

The night before baking the cake, using an electric beater, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly. Add the semolina, combine, and let the mixture rest in a cool place overnight. Do not refrigerate.

Step 3

The next day, preheat electric oven (180 deg C/350 deg F). Mix the maida with the fruit first to prevent it from clumping together and sinking to the bottom of the pan. Add this to the butter mixture along with the vanilla essence and mix gently by hand. Finally add the caramel syrup and mix thoroughly.

Pour into two 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pans and bake for an hour or until done in an electric oven. If the top browns quickly, reduce the heat a little (to not less than 170 degrees), and cover loosely with brown paper/aluminium foil. The cake may take longer to cook in a gas oven.