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Cakewalk in Allahabad
Around late November an unusual kind of pilgrim starts to take the Prayag Raj from Delhi to Allahabad: the devout worshipper of the Allahabadi Christmas cake. This is no elegant western pudding - it is redolent with desi ghee, petha, ginger, nutmeg, javitri, saunf, cinammon, something called cake ka jeera and marmalades from Loknath ki Galli. All this is browned to perfection at a bakery that has acquired cult status - Bushy's on Kanpur Road.
The ancient city has had a great baking tradition. It could be because Allahabad had - and still has - a sizeable population of Christians. At one time, it was the preferred enclave of Anglo Indians, and it boasted many excellent schools and colleges with hungry boarders who needed a steady supply of bread, cupcakes, biscuits and cakes. If you talk to old-timers there were three giants in the baking business around four decades ago - Mallu, Mathu and Bushy's (the baker's name was Haji Mohammad
Zubrati but he had a bushy beard and the name Bushy's stuck).
The others packed up but Bushy's survived and is now the must-do cake destination for Allahabad Christians across India and the world. Whether you live in Delhi or Lucknow or Varanasi, and even if you have migrated to Dubai, Bahrain and the US, when you come home for Christmas the feast is not complete without the rich brown Christmas cake from Bushy's.
The interesting thing is the Allahabad Christmas cake is only baked at Bushy's. Customers get their own ingredients to the bakery and watch like hawks while the batter is manually whisked and popped into the oven for its mandatory two hours of baking.
Asha and Sushil Browne have for the last two decades been going back to Allahabad, their home town, from Delhi to get their Christmas cake done. Around the last week of November, they get started on the long, painstaking and lovingly put together cake-making process. First step is booking your date with Bushy's. He bakes anywhere up to 2, 000 cakes in the season and if you don't have an appointment you may have to wait in a queue, or worse, wait overnight at the bakery.
"I remember once waiting overnight for my turn, " recalls Sushil Browne. Families, in fact, land up with tiffin boxes and snacks to wait for their turn and a lot of time is spent gossiping about church politics and neighbours. There is the air of a picnic around the shop.
But before all that, there is the ritual putting together of ingredients. You have to go to Loknath ki Galli known for its murabbas and preserved fruits to buy the citrus peels and marmalades that enrich the cake. Almonds, cashews and raisins could come from Khari Baoli in Delhi or abroad. These have to be sliced and soaked in buckets of rum or brandy for at least a week. The desi ghee - not butter, and certainly not yellow butter because it is runny - is often made at home. The last two factors ensure that the cake lasts for a year, and that too unrefrigerated.
If you ask a non-resident Bushy loyalist from Allahabad why they take the pains and not settle for a neighbourhood bakery, you are likely to hear a horrified gasp.
"But he is the expert. If you invest so much in your Christmas cake you can't take the chance of going to some random baker, " says Asha Browne. The family gets anywhere between 60 and 70 cakes baked every Christmas (one kilo each of flour and sugar gets you around 12 cakes). It might sound like a lot but remember the tradition of Christmas demands sharing of cake among families and friends.
The Eusedius family of Delhi is lucky because it still has a strong Allahabad presence. Lalita, the matriarch of the family which is said to be the oldest Christian clan in Allahabad, and one of the siblings, Neelam, still live there and can muster cakes for the whole extended family. Up until recently Lalita would preside over the mixing and baking at Bushy's, this year Neelam had to take charge. "I am getting anxious calls from my brother and nieces: 'Are you sure you will manage it like mum? Why can't she go with you? Will it taste as good?'" she says with a guffaw.
No two cakes popping out of the Bushy oven taste the same - the ingredients, the proportions, the pre-baking processes are customised to a family's needs, palate and affluence. The Brownes for instance, use minced cashewnuts, the Eusediuses, are particular about using home-made desi ghee while the Rudras insert a wrapped coin into the batter as a special treat. While Bushy's skills with the whisk and the heat of the oven are important factors, the hand behind the dabba of ingredients taken to the bakery is even more so.
But there is no underestimating Bushy's skills. Run by the son of the family Aslam, it sticks to tradition. For one, the bakery has stuck to hand mixing in an age when even small home cakes are machine whisked. This, says Aslam, is the secret of their success. His boys take up to 45 minutes to whisk each cake. Remember that in homes, the whisking bowl is usually passed around to give aching biceps and elbows a break.
"This manual mixing makes all the difference. And my employees are so good at it they can manage it really fast, " says Aslam.
Baking among Allahabad Christians is a time for fun and bonding. Anuvinda Varkey recalls sitting around the table with her siblings and cousins, slicing fruits for the cake under her grandmother's supervision. "We had to sing as we sliced so that she would know who was eating the fruits on the sly, " she recalls. "But we loved it all because we got to lick off the leftover batter. Actually, the baker was very meticulous, he would wipe the whisking bowl clean but my granny would make him smear some batter back on for us to lick. "
Don't conjure up visions of a frilly, pretty confection - this is a rectangular block with butter paper wrapped around it and the number stamped on it but bite into it and it is like a world of flavours melting gently onto your tongue.
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