Chennai’s favourite old bakeries share their Christmas cake secrets

Every traditional plum cake is distinct, with a secret ingredient or ten. Join us as we get in line to try a slice at the city’s oldest bakeries

Updated - December 24, 2021 11:43 am IST

Published - December 23, 2021 05:27 pm IST - Chennai

Christmas dessert

Christmas dessert

Traditional bakeries in Chennai that have been around for decades, tell their story through recipes that have stood the test of time, changing tastes, and a pandemic. Join us as we explore some of the city’s most iconic bakeries, all of which sell out to serpentine lines every year. (These grow longer around the second week of December, and stay that way till Christmas Eve, so you better move fast if you plan to tuck into plum cake this week.

Whitefield Bakery, Purasaiwakkam

Opening its doors in 1932, Whitefield Bakery has been doling out rich plum cake every Christmas for over 40 years.

SMK Ishaaq Basha, the grandson of Syed Sibgatullah, who started the bakery along with AS Lokasah, is carrying forward a legacy of fresh, light cakes, sans thick dollops of cream and fondant toppers. Basha, who helms the operations along with manager, VM Mohideen, says the current recipe for their cakes was passed down to him by founder, AS Lokasah.

He explains, “For us the texture of all our cakes — almond, plum, tea or milkmaid — has to be perfect. It has to melt in your mouth. We do not overdo the embellishments. We like the recipe to speak for itself.”

The plum cake uses floral honey to soak its fruit medley of black raisins, figs, cherries, cashewnut and multi-hued tutti frutti (coloured, sugar-soaked nuggets of raw papaya), for over a month. Brisk sales start around the halfway mark in December.

“We usually sell 400-500 cakes a day, even though last year sales dipped a bit during the pandemic. This year we are hopeful of a happy season, when our favourite customers place orders to be sent to friends and family,” says Basha. Half-kilogram cakes are priced at ₹200 and one kilogram at ₹400 a piece.

If you are looking for a sweet and savoury hamper this Christmas, Whitefield bakery makes egg, paneer, chicken and vegetarian puffs, sweet and salt butter cookies, and baby and milk rusks as well.

Contact: 9790760126

Ajantha Bakers and Sweets, Perambur

Started in Perambur, the heart of Chennai’s Anglo-Indian community, Ajantha bakery makes its plum cake round the year. Satish Kumar, manager across multiple locations in the city, explains why: “Our long-time customers pick up plum cake slices by the thousands for weddings and special occasions.” The bulk of their sales, however, occur in December.

Says Satish, “At Christmas, churches in North Chennai place orders to give to their congregations after midnight mass. Some schools and colleges also order from us. We usually sell between 2,000 and 3,000 cakes, in slices, half-kg sizes (₹375) and one-kilogram sizes (₹700), on a daily basis during this season.”

The Anglo-Indian recipe passed down to the bakers, uses plums, dried red cherries, raisins, candied orange peel, slivers of ginger and tutti frutti. The fruit, he adds, “is soaked in October in a honey syrup, and the cakes have been finding happy hearths for over 40 years.”

“What started as an English recipe, has incorporated Anglo-Indian sensibilities and we now have an uniquely Indian Christmas specialty,” concludes Kumar. The bakery sells cookies, puffs, and takes custom orders for gifting, while accepting orders online as well as via aggregator platforms.

Contact: 9500093531

Verghese Bakery, Mylapore

Tucked away on West Circular Road, Mandavelipakkam, Verghese Bakery has been making its traditional Christmas cake the same way since 1958. Alex Verghese says a family recipe, with a unique mix of exotic dry fruits, is what really makes their Christmas cake stand out from the crowd.

“We use apricots, figs, sultanas and cranberries, and they’re all soaked with warm spices for over a month. This really helps bring out the depth of flavour of the fruit. Our recipe does not use any nuts.”

The bakery was started by CI Verghese, when his family migrated from Kerala to Madras around 70 years ago. While the bakery has a loyal following over five decades, the place has the cosy vibe of a family bakery, where familiar faces and tastes make for a memorable experience. Verghese says customers make special orders for Christmas, starting December 13 all through the festive season. A quarter-kg cake sells at ₹225, and the half-kilogram version at ₹450.

The bakery has decorated cakes ready for gifting, along with their other bouquet of baked goods — puffs, cookies and their best-selling butter cake.

Contact: 42101991

Smithfield Bakery, Puraswaikkam and Maduravoyal

Started in 1885 by Ponnuswamy N, of Sadaraspattinam, Smithfield Bakery continues to draw in loyal customers come December every year.

Venkatesh Shanker says their take on the Christmas cake borrows from the Indian spice mix for garam masala: whole cloves, star anise, nutmeg.

“Ours is not the typical English Christmas cake,” he says, adding “We began making this version around 70 years ago and our customers keep coming back for more. We have two iterations — a no soak cake that we sell round the year, and the cake that requires a soak.”

This is not the typical soak. Smithfield begins soaking their fruit mix of sultanas, plums and assorted dry fruit, for the rich plum cake between July and September. When it is time to bake, the fruit is redolent with the heady spices, and brimming with that festive aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg, that envelopes you like a warm hug.

“We do sizes for a quarter kilogram to 300 gram, 1 kg and custom sizes as well. The price ranges between ₹175 and ₹700,” he adds.

Smithfield sells their rich plum cake from December 13 onwards at their outlets on Perambur Barracks Road and Poonamallee High Road. Despite the pandemic, Shanker says there have been steady orders for their rich plum cake, and they hope to do brisk business till Christmas.

If you are looking for more than the rich plum cake, they have an assortment of jam and cream buns, shortbread, butter biscuits, coconut drops, jam swirls, and seed and walnut cakes.

Contact: 9884600232 / 944 4477262

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