The cherries, the walnuts, the pineapple—this is more of a mantra than a checklist for me. It is, in fact, a way to ensure that I'm going to do justice to the recipe my mother handed down to me so lovingly, after inheriting it in turn, from her mother. Of course, if my grandmother had been here to watch me make a somewhat mess of her cherished pineapple upside-down cake, she would have probably asked me to preheat the oven, at least. But then, Aaji would also be unsuspecting of the sleek OTG that has replaced her hotplate, the gluten-free alternatives that have ousted her homely maida and the exponentially smaller amount of butter being used by me and my cousins to line the pineapples. Be that as it may, the cake, in its essence, has remained a constant in this family. And I bet that our family isn't the only one that is brought (and kept) together by an heirloom recipe.
Apple Crumble Cake by Crumbilicious Mumbai
Take, for instance, Sanah Ahuja, who runs the dessert kitchen, Crumbilicious Mumbai. "Recipes, like great stories, get better as they're passed down to the generations," romanticises Ahuja, who has bakes like an apple caramel cake on the menu. The oozy, sugary treat was passed on to her from her aunt, who in turn, learnt it from her mother-in-law and the cake, Ahuja swears, could give even the best patisseries in Mumbai a run for the money.
Pound Cake by Arushi Hasija (@/millsandbuns on Instagram)
For food content creator and Lavonne-Academy alumnus Arushi Hasija, on the other hand, it's a simple pound cake that connects each member of her family and comes laced with butter and nostalgia. "It brings back memories of baking when I was about as tall as my kitchen counter," she recalls, adding that it's the go-to recipe for birthdays, anniversaries and sometimes, even for when there's too much butter in the house.
Garam Masala Cake by Deeba Rajpal (@/passionateaboutbaking on Instagram)
An entertaining similarity, I've realised, is that most of these legacy recipes seem heavy on the calories. Was it because they originated before the boom of the health and wellness industry? Perhaps that could explain my need to cut the sugar down in our family recipes. But I could also be the exception. Because for food stylist and blogger Deeba Rajpal—also known as Instagram blogger passionateaboutbaking—the ingredients themselves are very important because they're entwined with her family's culinary history. As is the case with Rajpal's garam masala cake, which was born out of necessity and developed by her mother to include garam masala at a time when spices like cinnamon and nutmeg weren't easily available for wives in the armed forces. "A new year fruit cake was customary to bake in the armed forces then. And I try to keep that tradition going," she shares.
Cucumber cake by Alefiya Jane (@/alefiyajane_shebakes on Instagram)
And it is this—the ability of an heirloom recipe to preserve tradition and culture—that makes them so very special. East Indian home chef, cake sculptor and model Alefiya Jane, for example, tells us how her family's cucumber cake carries with it 350 years of East Indian heritage. "I have heirloom recipes that came from my grandmother to my mother to me," she explains.
For cooking enthusiast Nuzhat Fakih, too, recipes have been a conduit between one generation and the next. And also, a way to preserve the culinary aesthete of the region she belongs to: Konkan Murud-Janjira. Be it her family's coconut and banana Sehri recipes, or the simpler rice-and-coconut treats that her grandmother made, they all find obeisance in the reimagined versions being whipped up by the younger clan.
Which makes me wonder, can re-inventing or editing a recipe tantamount to tarnishing the legacy? Does it tamper with the inherent sugary, chocolatey goodness that my grandmother breathed into our family pineapple upside-down cake? Or does it merely find a new meaning as I make it my own?
Sroojana is an award-winning creator of fandoms. Her first love is her mother's rum cake, and her second love is baking cakes just like it. Controversial opinions range from liking citrus flavours more than chocolate, and pineapple on pizza - she WILL fight you on this, as long as you're not asking during a binge-session of Korean shows or food.