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Cookery

Christmas in the days of the British Raj

Five generations of Jenny Mallin’s family lived in India in the days of the British Raj, with each handing down their recipes through the years. Here she takes us on culinary journey into a lifestyle that no longer exists

Jenny Mallin

Reporter:

Jenny Mallin

Imagine a time 85 years ago when Britain still had an empire. It’s the 1930s and a family is seated around their table with buttered forks in their hands and a large bowl in the centre of the table containing a dough mixture.

This was a scene very typical of an Anglo-Indian family, who would be busy making traditional Christmas goodies to eat. The photograph above was taken in 1930s and shows my family who were Anglo-Indians living in Bangalore. The dough mixture was in fact a recipe for kulkuls.

The best way to describe kulkuls is that it’s a kind of sweet biscuit, similar to a shortbread, which is then deep fried and coated in a sugar glaze and so called as they resemble a butter curl. The shape of this sweet biscuit is produced by taking a small marble of dough and rolling it onto a buttered fork to produce a butter curl shape.

Making kulkuls was a tradition that directly involved each member of the family – for it was a very special gathering, where children, parents and grandparents played a role in the kitchen. Kulkuls were made with flour, semolina, butter, sugar and eggs just a few days before Christmas, ready to share with visiting friends, family and neighbours during the festive season. Another traditional Christmas fare produced just before Christmas were rose cookies.

The recipe called for utmost patience and care in the making but, once mastered, these cookies would be enjoyed for their crunchiness and unique shape. The ingredients consisted of rice flour, coconut milk, sugar, baking powder and eggs. The skill was in getting the right consistency of the batter, which if too thin would fail and produce a softer biscuit.

The mixture would be poured into specially-formed rose cookie moulds made of cast iron after the mould had first been dipped into hot oil for a minute. The batter would be filled to half the height of the mould, lifted quickly and then floated into the hot oil continually shaking the mould until gradually the cookie fell out and would be fried until it was a light golden brown. It took great patience and dexterity to achieve the perfect cookie.

In addition to these sweet treats, at Christmas my grandmother would prepare a warmed spicy drink, similar to our mulled win, to be served to family and friends as an accompaniment to the kulkuls and rose cookies. Known as OT (meaning other thing), the drink was made with ginger, red chillies, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.

The recipe first made an appearance in the early 1900s after it was invented by an Indian maharajah as something that could be mixed with either whisky, brandy, beer, aerated water or even milk. Christmas Cake, however, was the most popular recipe and I have several versions of my grandmothers’ recipes from an old ledger book of theirs. Wilhelmina’s well-thumbed and well-loved recipe from the 1850s has had all kinds of additions and changes made to it since her original version. It would have taken much longer to prepare compared to nowadays – her currants had to be “cleaned, stoned, picked and dried” and she would have made her own butter which had to be “perfectly free of water”.

It must have been quite a rich cake as she used 40 eggs, with 1½lbs of flour, ½lb semolina and two wineglasses of the best brandy available. Over the years, her daughters, and also their cooks, would have made a little changes here and there to both the ingredients and the proportions, according to their liking and as new ingredients became available. Prunes and plums (raisins) were eventually added by her granddaughter, Maud to the recipe, butter was replaced with ghee (clarified butter) and baking powder was added to give the cake a lighter feel.

Irene, Wilhelmina’s great-granddaughter has written across the side of the page “this quantity will make a 16lb cake”. One of my grandmothers employed a Hindu cook and, a quarter of the way down the left side of the page, are two recognisable Hindu symbols. The first one is “Om” is a symbol of the Absolute – as the cross is to Christians – and the second is a Hindu swastika, an ancient symbol of good luck and auspiciousness.

Fair Rosamonde pudding

This would have been a lightly fruited steamed pudding made with candied fruit. Here is a modern take on it

Ingredients

200g golden caster sugar
170g melted butter
20ml warm milk
2 eggs, beaten
140g plain flour
1 tspn baking soda
1 tspn salt
1 tspn ground cinnamon
1/2 tspn ground cloves
500g candied mixed fruit (pineapple, orange, cherries, lemon)
175g raisins

Method
Combine the sugar, butter, milk and eggs in a mixing bowl. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves to the batter mix and give it all a good stir. Finally, add the candied fruit and raisins. Pour into a greased and sugared steam pudding bowl and place on a rack in a large covered pot with water that comes halfway up the sides of the bowl. Cover and steam for two hours, checking occasionally to make sure water hasn’t boiled out. Let cool for five minutes and turn out. Serve with custard.

Ophelia's Christmas cake

Ophelia’s recipe is the closest version to my own recipe, which I’ve been using with great success for the past 35 years. The cake is delicious, rich and moist and with just the right mix of fruit, nuts and cherries. The only difference between her recipe and mine is that I omit the black treacle and instead of using caster sugar, I use muscovado sugar which gives it that wonderful taste of treacle.

Ingredients
225g sultanas
225g raisins
225g currants
100g glacé cherries, chopped
150g mixed peel, chopped
50g flaked almonds
50g cashew nuts, chopped
50g pistachio nuts, chopped
150ml sherry
2 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp freshly-grated nutmeg
250g butter
250g caster sugar
5 large eggs
250g plain flour
2 tbsp black treacle

Method

Line an 8in tin with baking parchment and tie brown paper around it. In a large bowl soak the dried fruit, nuts and spices in the sherry and cover. This can be left for up to a week but make sure you stir the mixture daily. In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale. Add each egg alternately with the flour then toss in the fruit and mix well. Add the black treacle and stir well. Spoon the mixture into the baking tin and bake the cake at 120°c/Gas mark 1 for approximately four hours. It is cooked when a skewer inserted comes out clean. Let it cool in the tin for an hour, then transfer to a wire rack. Make tiny holes with a skewer on the surface of the cake and once a week until Christmas, pour a few drops of sherry into the holes. Keep in airtight tin or foil wrapped until use.

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