Here’s the secret list of ingredients: Maida, sugar, eggs, candied fruit and one mother with endless enthusiasm. Like a poem recited again and again I learnt the list by heart. I’m sure Mum learnt to make Christmas sweets that way too. From watching my grandmother who, I remember, etching Christmas trees with the clean end of matchsticks on nanakaties with gnarled hands, then presenting tray upon tray of baking with the pride that you’d present a new-born baby.
I think she made sweets not because ‘there is joy in giving etc. etc.’ but because she enjoyed making them. From tinting grated coconut a pink for what East Indians call ‘kordeaal’ to mashing dal for what she called ‘doll’ sweet., I know she got it right. Deep inside I believe we make sweets because along with the cards we receive from relatives we don’t know, twinkling ornaments and the gifts we plan excitedly but forget to give, it’s what makes Christmas more than just a day; a whole mushy season. And mostly because it would mean breaking your teeth on rock hard kulkuls you bought from the store.
Quite honestly we make sweets because it’s what we have. What we don’t have, is snow therefore no snowman to build and cotton to trim the tree. We kiss under fake mistletoe. And in a cynical age when we accept that Santa is a mixture of Saint Nicholas, pagan tradition and an advertising promo by Coca Cola this is one of the simple things we can rely on to give us joy, to bring and hold us together. To give us a whiff of the same magic we felt as kids when we opened a Christmas card and it turned into a pop-up crib. That, and the hope that somebody would’ve left a present for us under the Christmas tree.
And so we scribble the lists. Jujubes, star-shaped milk cream, fudge, Christmas pudding that we never attempt, nevrees – those half-moon shaped dough things pregnant with sweet filling, rose cookies that aren’t cookies but flower shaped crunchies, golden brown date biscuits stuffed with slivers of dates and cashew.
And of course Guava cheese – clearly the winner when it comes to building biceps. Everyone loves Guava cheese till you announce making it. ‘Boil guavas, mash guavas, stir continuously for hours. Keep bottle of iodex handy’. Yes, they forgot that in the recipe. Every year we take turns with a wooden stirrer huge enough to knock us out of action. Out of respect for doubtful results no one ever tried that strategy.
We could always buy sweets but then where would we get our jollies if not in trashing stingy Cecy who wouldn’t divulge the recipe that made milk-cream a delicate pink instead of a violent magenta. We’d lose the chance to catch up on each other’s lives or skip to memories stacked around Christmas past. To chuckle about the time Audrey placed the hot oven lid on the carpet creating a design that rivals Ikea. Or the year the cake sank like the Titanic.
Plums, candied fruit, wine… Mum’s cakes have lots of heaven in them. We’d watch them rise lazily as the house filled with the fat warm smell of baking. But that was after we’d finished with the serious part of cake making: licking the batter off our fingers, from the spoons and bowls, often wondering why you need to bake the cake at all.
Mum made Christmas sweets even when it meant rushing from work to wield the rolling pin late into the night. On a floor layered with newspaper we’d sit as if in a prayer circle crimping kulkuls, humming off key to ‘I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus’ interrupted only by “Pass the cutter you klutz”, “Stir or you’ll burn it” and “Mommy, she just ate some of the cherries.” All in consensus that if baby Jesus tasted these he’d leave the manger and come live with us.
The sweets were then hidden away. In tins cleverly labelled “Spices” or deep inside cupboards. She knew we’d find them. But that was part of the ritual. A ritual that adds to the sweetness of our lives. Like family and midnight mass it reassures us that in the face of change, in the face of wars and 9- 9 careers, superficial trends and fickle boyfriends some things stay rooted, secure.
(Published in the Times of India – For ‘Snapshot’, a column on Mumbai and it’s various cultures