“If prepared correctly, a fruitcake can have a shelf life of more than twenty-five years,” chuckled the toothless betel leaf chomping Chand Ali as he mixed perfectly calculated portions of assorted nuts and dried fruits into a massive copper plate. Twelve-year-old Rani and her five-year-old brother Riju peered over the master baker’s shoulders to ask questions and intricately observe the seventy-year-old in his elements. They were engaged in the annual winter ritual of traditional fruitcake making of the Pyne family in the central courtyard of their palatial residence in North Calcutta’s Maniktala Bazar area of the Indian subcontinent.
“F-L-O-U-R mane (meaning) Maida, E-G-G mane Anda, S-U-G-A-R mane Chini, M-I-L-K mane Dudh, S-A-L-T mane Namak,” went on the old baker spelling out the English names of the cake ingredients from a copy beside him, on which he had been practising writing English in a crooked and shaky cursive font. Over the past few years, every winter, when the old man came to their house, little Rani would tutor him to read and write English, and he would teach her to bake the perfect fruitcake.
“O-L-D M-O-N-K,” slowly read aloud Riju as he moved the little index finger of his right hand across the label of a stout glass bottle with tiny dimples on the surface. “Will you mix daddy’s not-to-touch brown juice in the cake as well, Chand Dadu (grandpa),” enquired the ever-curious Rani as soon as his little brother finished reading the alphabets on the bottle?
“Rum is what kills any bacteria in the cake. You have seen your mother soaking the dry fruits in it for months. This bottle I will add to the dough. It makes sure that you can eat this cake even after many years from today,” smiled and replied Chand Ali, always delighted to interact with the children.
For the next few hours, the old man took great care to precisely measure and prepare a dough of all-purpose flour, white butter, brown sugar, separated egg whites and yellows, baking soda, milk, salt, grounded cinnamon, and un-sulfured molasses. He put in the nuts, dry fruits and the rum in the end and kept on churning the dough with an antique Palash-wood ladle. Chand Ali did not stop till the massive mouth-watering wobbly lump reached a desired texture and satisfaction level.
At the end, when the dough was settled, Chand Ali brought out a secret powder blend from an antique wooden box and sprinkled it all over the cake mix. “What is this that you just added to the cake Chand Dadu,” quickly enquired the ever-observant Rani. “This is my secret cake-mix-spice little one. It is what makes my cake different from everyone else’s,” replied the toothless baker as droplets of betel juice flew from his red-stained lips.
“When I grow up, I want to be a master baker like you, Chand Dadu,” said Rani innocently as the old baker continued with his business.
The earliest recipe for a fruitcake can be traced back to the ancient Roman days, when pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and raisins were mixed into barley mashes and baked in wood-fired clay ovens. Later on, during the Middle Ages, honey, spices, and preserved fruits started being added. Gradually, fruitcakes proliferated all over Europe, with recipes varying from region to region throughout the ages, depending on the availability of ingredients. During the colonial days, the British introduced this culinary art to the Indian palate.
After finishing his work with the dough, Chand Ali rose and opened his legendary black tin trunk and pulled out several small and rectangular aluminium containers and placed them one beside the other on a blanket of newspapers. Mom now came with a giant roll of butter paper and sat beside the tin boxes, cutting out rectangular sheets with her trusted pair of scissors. Rani and Riju exactly knew what to do next. They helped Chand Dadu apply oil inside the little tin boxes and neatly lay the inner walls with the cut sheets of butter papers.
The master baker scrapped the last ounce of dough from the massive pot with his stout fingers and transferred the contents in the last of the little tin boxes. “Sixty pounds this year Mrs Pyne,” announced the old man, looking at mother, who nodded in approval and went to the drawing-room to share the news with father, who was enjoying a goblet of not-to-touch brown juice while reading one of his favourite novels.
Chand Ali was the last tradesman of his breed. He was the sole surviving cakeman of his kind. His profession took him to the houses of a very select Christian clientele in the city of Calcutta. The master baker would help his clients mix and prepare the dough for fruitcakes and then take it to be baked in a wood-fired clay oven in one of the bakeries in Taltal and get the finished cakes back to his customers’ houses.
This was an old and traditional way of baking huge quantities of cakes by Christians in Calcutta. With the changing times, this way of making cakes was fast disappearing. The year was 2001, and now the global market was more open. Many cake shops had sprung all over the city. Within the next decade by 2013, not only could one buy a cake from a shop but order it online from any corner of the world as well. This old way of cake making was in the last of its dying phase and would soon only remain to be a nostalgic memory of bygone days.
Two days after preparing the dough in the courtyard of the Pyne residence, Chand Ali brought back the rectangular loaves of half and one pound freshly baked cakes. Rani and Riju could not contain their excitement. They had to be the first to taste this year’s fruitcake. No doubt no other fruitcake could beat that which Chand Ali had made.
While the two siblings gobbled lumps of sweetness, father handed over the payment to the old baker saying, “Chand Ali, we are sorry, but this is the last year we will be making cakes this way. The process is too costly and cumbersome. Further, our relatives and friends now seem to prefer the fancier off-the-shelf cakes. They come with fancy packaging and all the bells and whistles. No doubt that no one can bring out the taste that you create, but we simply cannot do this anymore for various reasons. Hope you understand old friend.”
Rani had just heard what her father said and cried loudly as Chand Ali slowly rode away, with the empty black tin trunk tied on the carrier of his trusted bicycle.
Two days later, on Christmas day, when the spirit of festivity was at its height in the Pyne residence, there was an unexpected knock on the door. The ever-attentive Rani dashed to find the old baker at their doorstep. “Hello, little one, I won’t be staying today. I have become too old to bake cakes going door-to-door. I have finally decided to pack my business. As a parting gift, I would like to give you this unique cake that I have specially baked for you. It will last you forever, but you should eat it soon as it has the power to make your dreams come true,” after saying these words, the old man left before Rani could react or thank Chand Dadu in any way.
As the years passed by, Rani did not eat the cake. Knowing it was the last of its kind, she could not muster the courage to eat it. She kept it safe, thinking that one day when she would bake a cake similar to what the old baker had made, she would eat the last cake that Chand Dadu had baked.
Time flew, and Rani grew. Calcutta became Kolkata. Many of the nostalgic charms vanished as the old city evolved with new and charismatic things. Rani was now thirty-two and at a crucial juncture of her life. It is the month of Christmas in 2021. She had graduated from the Indian Institute of Hotel Management (IIHM), with a specialisation in baking cakes. For the past few years, she had been working hard to give fruition to her childhood dream. Finally, she had saved enough money to open her own business. Now she was about to open her very own bakery from the Pyne Residence. All the formalities for her new business were in place.
It was a special month not only professionally but personally too. Rani was to get married to Shekhar, her sweetheart from the IIHM, a fellow student who shared her passion for baking, and together they dreamt of opening their bakery in the ‘City of Joy.’ There was, however, a problem.
“The wedding is just in seven days. Our bakery is also scheduled to open on the same day. Both the things have to be on the auspicious day of Christmas. I will simply not have just any other cake for the wedding, and neither will our bakery roll out its first batch of just any other fruitcake. I have to crack Chand Dadu’s recipe,” said Rani with much frustration as she banged her fists on the kitchen table of her yet-to-open bakery at the Pyne residence.
Hours went by as Rani and her fiance dug their heads to bake several small batches of various ingredients and spice mixes, trying to recreate Chand Ali’s legendary fruitcake. At 4:00 AM, when all their efforts had failed, Shekhar said, “Rani, if I could only eat a piece of Chand Ali’s cake, perhaps I could provide better input in breaking the recipe.”
Rani stood up from her chair saying, “what the hell.” She walked out of the kitchen and came back after ten minutes with Chand Ali’s twenty-year-old fruitcake wrapped in an embroidered cloth, which she had safely stored all these years in a tin box in her closet. Carefully unwrapping the cloth, she delicately placed the cake at the centre of the table.
“Well, Shekhar, since you stood by my side during these last few years, fuelling my dream, you at least deserve a slice of Chand Dadu’s legend,” saying these words, Rani drove her knife across the surface on one corner of her treasured loaf, which she had for so long safely kept. She handed over a slice to Shekhar, and her fiance chewed it without a word, savouring every last morsel of the fabled fruitcake.
“I have never tasted anything like this in my whole life. Why don’t you have a slice too,” Shekhar said to his fiance. As Rani drew the knife on the cake to carve out a piece for herself, she felt something hard scrape on the blade’s edge.
“Wait a minute, there is something inside this cake,” said Rani while carefully pealing the antique desert to find a little wooden box hidden inside the belly of the cake. As Rani broke open the small wooden box, tears rolled down her cheeks. Inside it was a folded parchment paper and on it was written in a crooked and shaky English cursive font the detailed process, the recipe, and the formula of the secret-spice-mix of Chand Ali’s legendary fruitcake.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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