In my formative years, I never made an earnest effort to own a slice of or cozy up to what or who I held close to my heart. From Black Forest Cherry Torte to Maple Iced Doughnut. From my first love in primary classes to an obscure artist, who could intoxicate me with unplugged melody in the quiet of a night. From the slice of a fruit cake wrapped in white parchment paper and served at wedding parties of the 1970s, to the pricy Deccan toffee showcased at Ramu Chettan’s grocery in the neighbourhood.
I kept them on a pedestal unreachable to me. Like the mannequin inside the grandiose white Our Lady of Dolours Basilica in my hometown, genuflecting to them in solitude. And from far. The Thaen Nilavu Mittai, a bright orange coloured, sugar-coated candy that oozed honey and sold at five for five paise, satiated my impoverished soul.
Back then, a cake was as precious as a moon rock, unthinkable for the Indian hoi polloi. We needed to wait for a family wedding to relish a rectangular piece of fruit cake wrapped in butter paper and served on a paper plate as thin as a pipal leaf, along with a spoon of Madras mixture, a few grape fruits and banana chips and — if at all lucky — a one-eyed boondi laddu.
A cake was never synonymous with a birthday, which was typically celebrated with a traditional feast served on a plantain leaf laid out on the floor — a subliminal reminder to be down to earth — topped with the south Indian dessert payasam. Unlike modern times, a birthday was a vegetarian affair to reminisce the moment of birth as the zenith of innocence.
Bombay days since the age of 22 weren’t significantly different. The cake was still elusive. Birthdays, or any other joyous moments, were celebrated in the metropolis with a bite of peda, a dairy-based sweet popular in the North. The Indian pudding kheer or laddu were other uninspiring alternatives.
My first rendezvous with the cake happened when a hotel in Bombay baked up the front page of the newspaper I was working with, The Indian Post, in its original shape and size, the thickness of the cake being equivalent to the width of a newspaper column. The edible newspaper, with a typo in a brief headline sculpted in icing, marked the first anniversary of India’s first fully computerised newspaper. It was a life-changing experience that rattled my sweet tooth.
We had since been romancing the cake, especially after we moved to Dubai where people invented reasons to cut a cake, from passing a driving test to the birth of a baby. The newspaper cake, this time in the format of Khaleej Times, bemused not just the invitees but the bakers, too, who sculpted my ideas so gracefully and tastefully. The biggest accidental culinary discovery of our times, attributable to yours truly, was that scotch and black forest made a toothsome combination. Whiff of coffee mated with signature smoky notes. A well-dressed cake could come alive like a danseuse bedecked in silk and sequins.
Baking innovations made birthdays an unforgettable event every year. Many a face was plastered with creamy mischiefs. Many a candle was blown out by the whiff of fun. Until the pathologist in a Singapore clinic raised an alarm and ordained lifestyle changes. “Mr Suresh, you are diabetic. So is your wife.”
Our world of black forest fell like a house of cards. The icing on life melted into a mess. Life has never been the same again. Diabetes trampled on our life at every step forward. Caffe latte was gulped down at cafés sans our favourite hors d’oeuvre. White sugar made way for jaggery and then for Canderel. Our empty nest depression, after the children left for universities, was compounded by the exit of all things sweet. Birthdays were conveniently forgotten. I never woke up with a shout to wifey, “Cake my day”. I feigned ignorance when a cheap sponge cake that inadvertently found its way to wifey’s shopping cart, disappeared from the chiller box.
This February 28, son’s birthday, rained down sweet memories. We had big plans, but fate, sorry, Vladimir Putin, had different ideas. Having left for his abode in Europe before the Ukraine conflict aggravates, we were denied of yet another occasion to soak up memories of the black forest.
Wifey rehearsed a WhatsApp audio greeting to make her birthday wish as crisp and soulful as possible, a job the bite of a groovy cake could have done better.
“What are you leafing through?” she paused before hitting the send button.
“Old birthday photos. They seem like a celebration of cake, not birthdays.”
“Dad, I have a different philosophy. Any birthday should be a celebration of motherhood. Women endure all the hardship during the 40-week gestation. We give flesh and blood to someone’s dreams. The womb is a crucible where the future is moulded.”
“Sure, darling. You said it. Let’s order a black forest.”
“What! A cake? Don’t be a dunderhead, dad. The woman who nurtured your dreams for almost a year deserves a better deal.
“What’s the treat you are craving for? Genoise? Angel Food? Chiffon?”
“Say it in gold, my dear chum. Crusted with little cherries of precious stones.”
The Ukraine war — never mind who played Putin — was fought in Damac Hills 2 in the following days.
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