Saturday, December 27, 2014

Where did the time flee?

It was just yesterday that she was born,
White as snow and round like a ball;

Did not take her long to make her presence felt,
My room, my bed, my clothes, oh! how sweet they smelt;

In a blink she was walking,
In another she was talking;

And then began the ego war,
On who will open the door or shut the drawer;

But she still was my stubborn little jerk,
Sleeping in my lap, after a hard day at work;

Suddenly she reaches my shoulder, tomorrow higher than me she will be;
And I will be sitting here wondering where did the time flee.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Tales of a Christmas Cake

The evolution of the plum cake from porridge and pudding, to what it is now. My piece in today's Hindu:

The story of the plum cake begins in medieval England, where it was a popular tradition to observe a period of self-denial, fasting, and abstinence from every kind of indulgence in the weeks leading to Christmas. The abstinence and occasional fasting was supposed to prepare the body for the overindulgence and excesses of Christmas. 

According to custom, on the eve of Christmas, a rich porridge was cooked and eaten to “line the stomach” for the upcoming feast. The porridge, said to have been made with oats, dried fruits, spices, honey, and sometimes even meat, can be called the grandfather of the Christmas — or plum cake.

With the passage of time, and as more ingredients made their way into the porridge, it started to resemble its current form. It is believed that sometime in the 16th century, oats was replaced with flour, and eggs and butter were also added to the mixture. (The meat had already been taken out of it and was prepared in other forms). This batter was then bound in a muslin cloth and cooked in a pot of boiling water for many hours. What came out was a heavy, dense fudge also referred to as cannon ball. In the richer households that owned an oven, the mixture was baked and not boiled. Every family had a different recipe depending on the preferences of the lady of the house. This rich cake, or pudding, was made a few weeks before Christmas, usually at the beginning of advent, when the period of abstinence began, and was saved until the twelfth and final day of celebration. It was served upside down, garnished with a sprig of holly, after the final celebratory meal. 

It is not clear, however, how it came to be called the plum pudding, or plum cake. Some believe that raisins, or currants, were also referred to as plums (or plumb) in England. The recipe was abundant in raisins, hence the name. Yet others believe that dried plums, or prunes, were the main ingredient of the original porridge, and were gradually replaced by other, more exotic dried fruits. Whatever be the case, the name stayed. 

The cake stayed too, even though it was very close to being lost in the reformation period of the late 19th century when Queen Victoria banned the feast of the twelfth night. The confectioners (by now it had become a commercial exercise as well) who had stocked their pantries up for the twelfth night celebration decided to use their stock and bake cakes for Christmas instead, lest they suffer losses. The tradition caught on.

Around the same time, families of men working in British colonies in Australia, America, Canada and other parts of the world began to make their cakes weeks, or even months, in advance and send it to them as a part of the Christmas hamper along with wine and presents. And that is how the first plum cake travelled out of England. 

In the last two centuries since it first travelled out of England, the plum cake has reached every corner of the world. Every country, region and family has a different version of the recipe. Some are made with nuts soaked in rum, some are fed with sherry or brandy for weeks after being baked, and some have no alcohol at all. Then there are those made up of cream cheese and whipped cream, and those containing minced meat (although they are more of a pie than a cake). 

And yet all of them have one thing in common: none of them contain plum.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Penning the holiday spirit

My piece in The Hindu today:

December means different things to different people. For some it is the time to celebrate the year gone by and look forward to a new beginning. For others it is the time to introspect, to look back with fondness – or regret – to long for the time lost. And to some, like me, it is the time to indulge in nostalgia. 

Whichever category one might fit in, there is no denying that December brings with it things that make us smile. The faint sounds of carol practice at the neighbourhood school, the bright colours of Christmas at a nearby mall, the misty mornings, the sunny afternoons, the never-ending evenings.

For most people who, like me, grew up in the pre-mobile and pre-internet era, December also brings with it the faded memories of a long forgotten practice of writing to our loved ones.

Come December and my father, like every one else’s, would bring home a big bunch of greeting cards. Sometimes blank inside, sometimes with his and mother’s name printed in them, the cards would be a source of much amusement for us. Over the next week or so he and my mother would diligently write to each one of our family members, relatives, friends, and acquaintances (we were always moving cities and the list grew longer every year), that we had not met many of them in years, or written to them in months notwithstanding. After the cards were written, addressed, and envelopes marked with ‘Book-Post’, we, the lowest in the chain, would get the responsibility of pasting stamps on each one of them. The activity would take days to complete and would fill our afternoons with unparalleled excitement.

Sending the cards however was only one part of the story. The other – and more rewarding – part was receiving them: the joy of discovering an envelope in the letterbox, the anticipation of tearing it open, the thrill of finding one from that special friend (and sliding it into a book). Weeks were spent in opening, reading, counting and displaying the cards. Some liked to put them up in their showcases, some would display them on the top of their refrigerators and some, who had far too many, would string them together on a ribbon and hang them about. (I would put my share of the cards on a soft board, along with the birthday greetings and was super proud of my enviable collection).

Then, somewhere along the line, we discovered the telephone. We could now talk to whoever we liked, so what if we had to wait until 11 PM for the pulse rates to go down? Calling a loved one, listening to his voice, and wishing him personally was far more gratifying than writing and waiting for a response (the telephone exchange even replaced the dial tone with ‘Happy New Year’ on the new years day).

When the mobiles came in, the calls were replaced by SMSs: it is far more convenient to write a message – or copy someone else’s – and send to everyone at once rather than calling everyone. There was no need to peep into our letterboxes anymore; the love and wishes were now delivered directly into our inboxes. And now we have Facebook and Watsapp.

Thanks to technology we can wish all those who matter to us at one go, and can even share pictures, videos and voice messages. Unfortunately though the love that comes along with the wishes can no longer be displayed on the refrigerators or show windows of our drawing rooms, neither can the messages be strung on a ribbon and hung about the house. They either remain locked in our smart phones, or get deleted to accommodate a few more selfies.