"I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month," reads the quote by Harlan Miller on Deeba Rajpal's blog, Passionate About Baking, where she shared a Garam Masala Fruitcake recipe in 2010. Rajpal's Christmas spirit is certainly a jar of garam masala. "My dream home would have garam masala aromas wafting through it," writes the food photographer and stylist on her decade-old baking blog. Known to readers as the "most inspirational blogger in India", LF finds out why garam masala is the hero of Rajpal's "holiday baking" and how the quintessentially Indian ingredient found itself in her Christmas fruitcake recipes.
The unexpected combination has its origins in a tradition followed by families of the Indian Armed Forces in Delhi of the ‘80s, where Rajpal grew up. "It was customary to make fruitcake around the New Year and my mother used to always make one," recollects the recipe developer. "In those days, fancy spices like cinnamon powder were not readily available. Considering garam masala, a huge favourite in north Indian homes, was easily accessible, they began spicing their fruitcake recipe with it," explains Rajpal. "I don't know who started it but I know my mother used it.”
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The unique blend of flavours fascinated Rajpal so much that "the tradition stuck with me," she says. "Garam masala is commonly thought in the context of hot, spicy, savoury and Indian," she says, "but I was intrigued by how well the flavours complemented each other." Explaining why the spice mix lends itself so well to sweet recipes, Rajpal draws a parallel between spice mixes from north and south India. "In the north, we use fewer chillies and more pepper, cloves and cinnamon. It is lighter on the palate and more fragrant than hot or spicy." In a fruitcake recipe on her blog, she describes, "The fruit marry well with flavours like garam masala, orange juice, brandy, caramel and lime juice." Talking of Indian flavours in Christmas recipes, Rajpal picks her favourites from the #XmasGoneDesi Instagram contest.
Along with her annual December fruitcake recipe, Rajpal has also experimented the addition of garam masala in other sweet recipes like dark chocolate truffles, salted butter caramel macarons and cookies. In a Whole Grain Bourbon Garam Masala Christmas Cake recipe, she writes, "The flavours of garam masala really bring it alive, as do the bourbon undertones."
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Ever since the self-taught baker posted her garam masala fruitcake recipe, it has attracted curiosity from both the Indian and international online food community. Having just returned from a cookbook club on the day of her chat with LF, Rajpal says, "I made the chocolate spice cake recipe from Nigella Lawson's book, Nigella's Christmas, with garam masala for our Christmas cookout." Describing the reactions, she says, "Lots of people were intrigued and on tasting said that the flavours had come out very well."
Owing to garam masala's common association with savoury recipes, Rajpal assures on her blog, "It doesn't end up too strong. Nor does it make your cake smell like curry!" An avid Instagram-er, Rajpal was on a panel hosted by Instagram India to discuss “food in the Instagram age” in November 2018. She recalls a message from one of her over 95,000 followers, a fellow baker from the UK, "She had tried one of my cookie recipes but said she 'wasn't brave enough to use garam masala'." Explaining the hesitation, Rajpal says, "Some people wonder if something is going to get spoilt."
Flag Bearers of Winter
While garam masala takes particular pride of place in Indian kitchens during winter, it's the fruitcake that evokes winter in the West. Both cultural winter food icons fuse to find a delicious common ground in Rajpal's garam masala fruitcake recipe. Her blog is flooded with comments expressing both wonder and admiration at the novel addition, usually found in Indian recipes, to a traditional Christmas recipe.
Images: Deeba Rajpal
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