December 16, 2011
“Christos e espiciarias!” (“for Christ and for spices!”) shouted the exuberant sailors of Vasco da Gama’s fleet as they anchored on the shores of Kerala, India, on May 20, 1498. But this proclamation was totally uncalled for, as there were already plenty of Christians in this southern Indian region. Syrian Christians were a well-established community in Kerala.
According to Christian tradition, the apostle Saint Thomas arrived in Kerala in A.D. 52 and converted many locals to Christianity. From the fourth through the 13th centuries, many more Christians came from the Middle East and Europe for trade.
During the Colonial era, the Portuguese built several churches and succeeded in establishing the Roman Catholic Church as the dominant church of Kerala. In 1663, the Dutch demolished most Catholic churches and built their own. In 1795, the British defeated the Dutch, and the churches went to the Anglicans. Some of these old churches are now protected monuments. Today, Christianity and Christian churches of various denominations are very well established in Kerala, and Christmas is a major religious holiday.
The more orthodox Christians abstain from meat and alcohol for 24 days before Christmas. Mass is held at midnight on Dec. 24, and services conclude at dawn, but celebrations continue at homes.
Christmas feast menus include palappam made with rice and coconut with meat stew, spicy meat, chicken, fish, rice, and vegetable preparations. The centerpiece of the Christmas feast is plum cake, a moist, brown cake with plenty of nuts, dried fruits and fragrant spices (but curiously, no plums) often served with wine. They send decorated trays filled with plum cake and treats made with cashews, coconut, and sugar to friends and neighbors.
Compared to the West, Christmas decorations are austere. From mid-December onward, beautiful five-edged paper stars hang in front of homes, stores and from trees in yards. At night, a lighted lamp is placed inside the star. Lately concepts of Christmas tree and a gift-bearing Santa Claus have also reached Kerala.
On my last visit home in December, I heard drumbeats that accompany elephant processions at Hindu temples. I could not believe it, but there was a Santa Claus riding on a decorated elephant, complete with a colorful parasol! Move over reindeer, Santa has discovered the elephant!
Kerala Christmas Plum Cake
Recipe courtesy of of my friend Dr. Sany Abraham.
This is a delicious cake packed with local fruits, nuts, and fragrant spices. Addition of caramel sauce gives a rich golden-brown color.
1 cup raisins
1 cup pitted dates
¾ cup dried pineapple
¼ cup candied orange peel
¼ cup candied lemon peel
1 cup unsalted cashew nuts
¼ cup brandy or dark rum
6 tablespoons of granulated sugar
3 tablespoons of water
6 drops of fresh lemon juice
½ cup boiling water
2 sticks of butter at room temperature
2½ cups powdered sugar
3 large eggs separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon powder
¼ teaspoon cardamom powder
¼ teaspoon nutmeg powder
¼ teaspoon cloves powder
¼ teaspoon dry ginger powder
2 teaspoons of powdered sugar and dried fruit for garnish
- Heat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Grease two cake loaf pans.
- Cut the fruits and nuts into small pieces and place them in a saucepan and pour brandy/rum and mix well. Heat the pan over low heat for 10 minutes to steam the fruits in brandy/rum. Remove the pan from the stove and keep it at room temperature.
- Place sugar in a saucepan and add 3 tablespoons of water and fresh lemon juice. Boil at high temperature. Do not stir, but as sugar melts and caramelizes, swirl the pan once or twice. When the sugar has caramelized and has a golden color remove from the stove and set aside. It darkens in a few minutes. Carefully add ½ cup of boiling water and bring the pan back to the stove and boil till it looks dark and syrupy. Remove from the stove. Keep the pan in hot water to prevent caramel from hardening.
- Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger and mix well.
- Cream butter until fluffy. Stir in powdered sugar and mix well. Add egg yolks, one at time, while continuing to stir. Pour vanilla extract and stir.
- Sift the flour and spice mix into the bowl, adding a little at a time and mix thoroughly.
- Stir in the caramel sauce and brandy/rum soaked fruits and nuts and mix well.
- Whip egg whites to soft peaks and fold into the cake batter.
- Pour the batter into the loaf pans and bake at 325 F for an hour until the top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. If necessary, bake for another five to 10 minutes until the cake is fully baked. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes, then remove from the pan and move to a cooling rack. Garnish with powdered sugar and dried fruits.