‘Tis the season to be soaking

It is one of the most awaited traditional rituals of households and hotels or cafes that marks the onset of the Christmas season,” smiles Rajib Mazumder, Corporate Chef, Rude Lounge. Chef Mazumder is referring to the mixing of choice dried fruits and eastern spices in alcohol or other non-alcoholic liquids such as orange juice or dark tea.

“This process of soaking of the dried fruits in alcohol leads to fermentation and absorption, which allows the dried fruits to absorb the alcohol and thus create a very unique aroma and taste.”

The practice harks back to early times, to the arrival of the harvest season, when seasonal fruits and nuts would go into the preparation of the traditional Christmas fruit cake. The mix would be saved up for the coming year as well in the belief that it would bring another year of abundance.

Explains Chef Kushal — Regional Chef, Barbeque Nation, “The cake mixing ceremony is an old tradition, generally associated with Christmas where we mix various ingredients, including dried fruits and spices well ahead of the festival to get the richness out of them.

The mixture is soaked in alcohol (traditionally rum and brandy) so as to create a unique taste and aroma. In India, plum cakes have been extremely popular during Christmas, wherein all dried fruits are categorised as “plum” so we add all dried fruits for the cake mixing ceremony. Later when mixed in cake batter and baked, it creates a fused taste of bitterness of the alcohol and sweetness of cake and the richness of dried fruits.”

Chef Kamlesh Rawat, Executive Chef, Radisson Mumbai Goregaon, fresh from the hotel’s cake-mixing ceremony, informs that this process enhances flavour as well as adds moisture to the cake. “Ideally the fruits should be soaked for a minimum of two months.

We use a mix of almonds, cashewnuts, walnuts, pistachio, raisins, fruits, ginger candy, ginger powder. While the ingredients depend on regional availability of fruits, the proportion of alcohol used is basically one litre of alcohol for two kg of dried fruit.”

Fruity appeal

A Christmas fruit cake is all about the fruit — the flour and butter only help to bind and hold them into a shape. Select the best quality available, with a mix of fruit of different colours, textures and tastes. Aim for preservative-free dry fruits.

Here are suggestions on what fruits to add for Christmas cake:

Black raisins and sultanas – raisins are the dark dried grapes, while sultanas are the golden ones.

Currants – black or red

Cranberries

Orange and lemon peel – candied or plain (see kitchen hints, below)

Dried dates – seedless, soft

Dried figs

Dried apricots

Other dried fruits – Prunes, glazed cherries, mango, papaya, apple, pineapple, blueberries, plum etc.

Chef Rajib’s tips for soaking

Sort out the dried fruit, removing stalks and checking that the fruits are clean and dry. Slice the fruits to the size about 1 cm, keeping the slices uniform as much as possible.

Place the sliced fruit in a non-reactive food grade jar or pot with a closely fitting lid. Plastic may react with the soaking liquid. Glass or ceramic would be best. Metal containers are also to be avoided.

Pour half liquid onto the dry fruits, stir so the liquid settles in. Continue pouring until the liquid covers the top of the fruit. Cover the pot or jar with an air-tight lid and store it in a dark place.

Stir the fruit daily or at least once in two days, to help moisten the fruit at the top which starts becoming dry. After a day or two you will find that the soaking liquid is no longer visible at the top level of the fruits, as it has been absorbed by the dry fruits.

When the soaking liquid is no longer visible on the top of the fruits, top it up with the same alcohol, one tablespoon at a time, every few days till you bake the cake. The top level should be moist, so add as much liquid to just cover the top. Gently stir once a week and keep topping with the same liquid.

The short cut method

Soak fruits for Christmas fruit cake about a month before Christmas – in the last week of November, but the soaking is just overnight. “The next day, bake the cake, and touch up with alcohol once a week as the fruits are soaked but not overwhelmingly so,” says Chef Rajib.

Chef Kamlesh also suggests, “You can also boil the fruits with alcohol and reduce it until it gets dry;

however the flavour will not be the same.”