Finding Joy In Christmas Baking
Around five decades ago, the town where I was born and bred, had only vernacular medium schools. But when the time came to enroll me and my siblings in a school, the newly-opened English medium schools became a rage. Attending such a school meant that there were kids from different religious backgrounds and social status studying under same roof. And no, there was no intolerance then and we did co-exist happily.
So while the Maharastrian friends would bring til gud on Sankranti, Sindhis would carry Gheeyar (huge jalebis) to school after Holi. Then there would be Mysore pak, Boondi laddoo, Barfi etc to be gorged upon, depending on the festivals and the circle of your friends.
It was only in mid-80’s that we got to know how Christmas was actually celebrated when J, a Christian girl became our classmate. And then I befriended more, in school and around, who would bring dark coloured cakes that tasted very different from the regular sweet and spongy mawa cakes that our tastes-buds were used to. The dark, dense and chewy plum cakes loaded with raisins and nuts were not easily available in the markets then, and one would feel fortunate to get an invitation from Christian friends, to be a part of the Easter or Christmas festivities to enjoy such delicacies.
Their houses decorated with lights, wreath, stockings and Christmas tree resembled almost like ours during Diwali celebrations. They lit candles, instead of earthen lamps or incense sticks. And while the Santa Claus stories would amuse us, the warning, that some cakes on the table were not meant for kids (due to presence of rum or wine), would come as a surprise. It was like a culture shock, hearing the parents and relatives of my friends conversing in fluent English, enjoying cakes and cookies (no mithai or namkeens or samosas), and singing carols (that sounded so different from our religious songs or bhajans). The décor, the ambience, the food and traditions, everything was so different when compared to our culture but the enthusiasm, the community gathering, exchange of sweets and gifts and the spirit of the festival was strikingly similar.
It’s been years since I last attended a Christmas party, but the festive buzz around, in the month of December always reminds me of my school friends and the carefree days of childhood. All the cakes and baking remind me of a circular aluminum oven that we had at home in the late 80s. But, all our curious attempts to bake a cake using maida and ghee would fail badly. It was considered as a beast that could only be tamed by one of our cousin, Neelam di, a certified baker then, who would bake amazing cakes and cookies while we watched in awe.
Now, that oven might be rusting in some corner of the house, weeping on its fate while we moved on to deck up our kitchens with the microwaves and OTGs. One of the baked goodies that Neelam di often made was nankhatai, and though I do not have her recipe, I do make these at my home, using a foolproof recipe of my friend Chef Akbar.
Nankhatai is a kind of Dutch Butter Biscuit, made from flour and butter or oil or vanaspati and is generally flavoured with green cardamom or vanilla. With the festive cheer in the air, I am all excited to bake my favourite cookies now.
Recipe for Nankhatai
100 gm all purpose flour
45 gm icing sugar
65 gm Margarine (I used butter)
A pinch of green cardamom powder
Few drops Vanilla essence
2 gm Milk Powder
1. Sieve the flour.
2. Cream the margarine or butter with icing sugar till smooth.
3. Add flour and knead well to make soft dough.
4. Divide the dough into 6-8 portions.
5. Smoothen each portion and roll into a ball. Flatten lightly to give it a cookie shape.
6. Lay each cookie on a greased tray at equal distance.
7. With a sharp knife, make a crisscross slit on each Nankhatai, place an almond or cashew in the centre and press it gently.
8. Bake the Nankhatai in a pre-heated oven at 300ºF (150 ºC) for 20-25 minutes or till crisp brown.