Thursday, 13 November 2008

Black Cake: First you take a bottle of rum . . .

I've just emptied a bottle of rum and one of sweet wine . . . and no, I haven't taken to drink. Actually, I'm soaking my fruit.

After this fruit macerates in its 40% proof bath for a month or so, I'm going to make my first fruitcake.

a word that conjures up myriad responses.

In America, fruitcakes are mostly mocked.
  • "Nutty as a fruitcake . . ."
  • The Christmas gift that keeps getting re-gifted.
  • A relic that only the older generation -- those same quaint folk who used to get an orange and a couple of nuts in their stockings -- actually like to eat.
Indeed, my paternal grandparents were very fond of fruitcakes; memorably, they even sent me one when I was in college. They liked the pecan-laden version from the famous Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. (I believe that they started out with the Deluxe, but switched to the Apricot Pecan version in later years.) According to their website, Collin Street Bakery ships to "196 foreign lands." I'm not sure exactly how many foreign lands there are these days, but that would seem to cover most of them. Clearly, somebody out there is eating a lot of fruitcake.

In England, fruitcake has always been popular -- so much so that it makes the festive rounds at birthdays, weddings, and especially, during the Christmas season. Unlike the American fruitcake, which features red and green glace cherries rather heavily, the English fruitcake is dark and boozy. Rum, sherry, ale, brandy, whisky: they all get their chance. Perhaps the English fruitcake has never fallen out of favor for precisely this reason. American fruitcakes are still suffering from Prohibition.

I've had a yearning to make my own Christmas cake (ie, fruitcake) for a few years now. Although this seasonal ritual never would have occurred to me in America, it is all part of my English acculturation process. It is not unusual, in my little corner of the countryside, for women to say something like: "I iced my Christmas cake today." This year, I am going to be one of those women! Marks and Spencer will still be selling Christmas cakes, but this year, I won't be buying.

I'm not just making any old fruitcake, though . . . I'm making Black Cake.

I first read about Black Cake in 1991. My friend Martha Smith gave me a copy of Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and said, "I think you will like this." Never mind "like"-- that insipid, lukewarm word -- I loved it. Indeed, I am evangelical on the subject of Laurie Colwin. I spread the Word whenever and wherever I can. If I meet a fellow Laurie fan, I am instantly convinced of this person's inherent likeability and good taste. It is like skipping the first six months of getting-to-know-you and cutting straight to the chase of true friendship. More food reminiscence than cookery guide, Home Cooking is for people who like to read about food. Laurie Colwin writes cookbooks for people who are interested in the role that food that plays in our lives. "Dinner Parties" or "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir" are typical chapter titles.

The final chapter in Home Cooking describes an exotic mixture called Black Cake -- which is, apparently, the Caribbean version of fruitcake. Colwin describes it thusly, in the following oft-quoted lines: "There is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak. Its closest relatives are plum pudding and black bun, but it leaves both in the dust. Black cake, like truffles and vintage Burgundy, is deep, complicated and intense. It has taste and aftertaste.

Who wouldn't want to try this gorgeous-sounding stuff? It seems entirely appropriate for me to make -- as my first fruitcake -- this Caribbean/American/English hybrid.

Black Cake
(from Home Cooking, by Laurie Colwin)

Part I: The Fruit

1 pound raisins
1 pound prunes
1 pound currants
1 pound red glace cherries
3/4 pound mixed peel
1 bottle Passover wine*
1 bottle dark rum (750 ml)

Chop all of the fruit extra, extra fine and put in a large bowl.

My reflections: Unless you have a posse of friends with you, and you are drinking margaritas and chatting as you do this extra fine chopping, I would advise a food processor for this task. Be sure to pulse each fruit carefully, and one at a time, or you will get mush -- particularly with the raisins and the prunes.

Add the wine and rum and stir the mixture together. Marinate at least two weeks, and up to six months. Colwin advises a "crock" for the marinating process; Nigella Lawson suggests a large tupperware; I'm using a large plastic bottle which I use (only theoretically) for lemonade in the summer.

My observations and shopping feedback: First of all, English people who work in grocery stores have no idea what "passover wine" is. One kindly man tried to fob me off with ale, as he claimed that this is what the locals are using for their fruit cake. I was pretty sure that passover wine* is a sweet, cheap red (and subsequent Internet research has revealed this to be the case), but I wasn't convinced that the truly fortified stuff (sherry, Madeira, port and the like) would be quite the thing. In the end, I decided to use a bottle of Vin Santo that I happened to have lying around . . . waiting for that moment when I might make cantucci. It is a sweet wine, much lighter than Madeira, and I liked the fact that it has a "pronounced scent of toasted almonds and dried apricots." Nigella claims that Madeira is best, so you will have to use your own judgment on this one. As for the rum, try to get one from the Caribbean. I used one called Lamb's Genuine Navy Rum, but as long as it is a dark rum, I would go with whatever is on special offer. Having already invested in the fruit and spirits, I have to say that "Homemade" is not the cheapest way to go. I find it somewhat worrying that Tesco's can sell small fruitcakes for just a few pounds.

And another pertinent thing: You will be amazed by how much rum can be drunk by this fruit. I expected a watery mess, but actually the fruit will be thick, albeit liquid, by the time you give it a good stir. I had a taste: Delicious! Just as well, because by my kitchen scale's reckoning -- and depending on how heavy your container is -- you should have about 7 pounds of highly alcoholic fruit.

Part II: Baking the Cake

Before you read the following list of ingredients, you might enjoy Laurie Colwin's words on the subject: "It is a beautiful, old-fashioned recipe . . . (which) comes from a time when cakes were cakes and no one bothered much about using a dozen eggs at a shot."

Laurie herself points out that you could halve the recipe, but why then go to all the bother? "The spirit of this recipe is celebratory, lavish and openhaded. It seems the right thing to make two and give one to someone you feel very strongly about." My plan is to make one big one, and then as many small ones (using a small loaf pan) as I can get out of the left-overs.

1 pound butter
1 pound dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 dozen eggs
1 pound plus 1/2 cup flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 pound burnt sugar, or 4 ounces burnt sugar essence*

1. Butter and flour two deep 9-inch cake tins and set aside. Preheat oven to 350F/175C.
2. Cream butter and brown sugar.
3. Add the fruit and wine mixture.
4. Add vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon.
5. Beat in eggs.
6. Add flour and baking powder, and then burnt sugar. Mix well.
7. Bake in cake tins for 60 - 75 minutes.
8. When cake is absolutely cool, wrap it in waxed paper and let it sit until you are ready to ice it.

My reflections: The mixing order of this cake is rather unorthodox. The recipe for Trinidad Black Cake suggests a more typical order of events: first creaming, then adding eggs one by one; then dry ingredients; and finally adding the fruit mixture, to which you have added the vanilla and burnt sugar. Even though I want to stick with Laurie as much as possible, I think that I will probably follow this latter instruction when it comes to mixing up the batter.

Notes on burnt sugar: In Nigella's version of the recipe, on pp. 250-252 of How to be a Domestic Goddess, she substitutes molasses for the burnt sugar. I am very opposed to this substitution: it seems to be against both the spirit and the letter of the recipe.

I'm planning on making my own burnt sugar, which is probably a necessity since I don't know of any West Indian grocery store nearby. (If you live in, New York City for instance, you might be able to buy the essence.) Colwin's instructions for making your own burnt sugar are a kind of vague hearsay: "Betty suggests putting a pound of brown sugar in a heavy skillet with a little water and boiling it gently until it begins to turn black. You do want to overboil. It should be only slightly bitter, black and definitely not burnt."

Still on the subject of burnt sugar, I found other words of guidance from this recipe: Put brown sugar in heavy pot. Stir, letting sugar liquefy. Cook over low heat until dark, stirring constantly, so sugar does not burn. When almost burnt, remove from heat and stir in hot water gradually. Mix well, let cool, and pour into container for use in final cooking.

Laurie Colwin freely admits that she has never made a black cake herself. Well, I haven't either -- yet -- but I feel confident enough about cake baking in general, and the capacity of my Kitchen Aid mixer in specific, to suggest making up this cake batter in two batches. Those of you with large commercial mixers may do as you like!

Part III: Icing the Cake

Laurie Colwin is a bit vague on "icing" instruction. She suggests that you use "the simplest white icing made of powdered sugar and egg white with the addition of half a teaspoon of almond extract."

Nigella Lawson takes the Black Cake down a traditionally English path at this juncture: a thin coating of marmalade goes on top of the cake, to be covered with marzipan, and finally a thick crust of Royal icing -- that ready-to-roll white fondant which can be purchased in blocks in any English grocery store.

In this
New York Times article, they leave the cake un-iced.

I will probably opt for an English version of the icing, as that is what my audience will expect. Pictures to follow in December!

But why stop at Black Cake? While I'm charting unexplored food territory, I may just venture further into the English culinary landscape. Today I lay down my fruit; tomorrow, there are new food worlds to conquer. Chutney! Pickled onions! Canning jars at the ready!


CashmereLibrarian said...

Yo! You are a brave one. I think my first Laurie Colwin (which yes dear readers Bee has turned me on to this writer) experiment will be gingerbread. I'll have my liquor on the side. ;-)

Brave Sir Robin said...

I remember reading that article in the NYT!!!!

My mother and Father are big Collin Street Bakery fans.

I get one (from them)every year, and 90% gets wasted every year.

I've always wanted to make a "real" one, but I just never have wanted to invest that much time and money into something I'm not sure I would like.

I will be dying to see pictures of yours and hear your opinion of it.

willow said...

Ummm...this Black cake sounds decadent! My mother always made her version of the American fruit cake, so laden with the red and green glace cherries that there was hardly any cake. And for some reason she maintained that it was always better aged. So it lived in the back of the fridge for months until it resembled styrofoam. It was vile.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I read Colwin's Black Cake chapter while on the train home from London a few weeks ago. I was transported to a different world--and desperately wanted a bite of that cake! I hope you do try it and let us know how it turns out. BTW, I've lent my "More Home Cooking" to a good friend ;-)

BSR--So sad about the fruitcake! Maybe slice it in small pieces and freeze for midnight snacks? I must admit I used to hate fruitcake, but have grown to love it as long as it has lots of nuts!

PG said...

Oh you can't beat a good fruit cake, though I prefer non-alcoholic ones such as are found at cricket teas (if you're lucky). My friend does a thing called 'feeding the cake', where she makes the Christmas cake a month or more in advance, and (instead of putting all the booze in one go) she keeps it in an airtight tin and sloshes some brandy or whatever over it. I think she must prick holes in the top to do this.
I make fruit cake regularly, and I don't think it's that expensive...if you use cheaper fruit and don't put the alcohol in
- it does age well in a closed tin, but this is if you use juicy fruit such as raisins/currants/sultanas, (as well as glace cherries) - then it stays nicely moist and flavoursome for weeks, or even months. I imagine if it were kept in a fridge it would indeed dry out to styrofoam texture, but in a tin, at room temperature, it just stays cake-y.

BTW, will email you about the other thing this weekend, am just finishing off things which have to be done by tomorrow...

Bee said...

cl - Well, it has taken me 17 years to work up to this point! By all means, start with the gingerbread. That is a favorite chapter of mine; like Colwin, I am a serious lover of gingerbread.

BSR - English fruit cake is an entirely different beast. It has a rich, complex taste . . . and is perfect with a cup of tea in the late afternoon -- when you are feeling "peckish." So which fruitcake do your parents buy for you? The deluxe?

Willow - Since those glace cherries don't taste very nice, where can you possibly go with that kind of fruitcake? (Obviously "straight" to the trashcan after the obligatory 6 month purgatory in the back of the frig.) My Black Cake promises to be deliciously decadent. Also, anything with prunes in it is a health food in my book.

JAPRA - Maybe we can have a Black Cake tasting tea party! Believe me, I'm making this cake. I've got my fruit right on the kitchen counter, so I don't forget about it.
As for the nuts, I'm definitely from the school of thought that nuts improve almost every cake and cookie. I'm thinking about adding some pecans, even though the recipe doesn't call for them. Just to give it a Texas stamp!

PG - Yes, there is a whole world of fruitcake possibilities in England. Like smoked salmon, it seems to be something that is increasingly to my taste as I mature. I've heard of feeding the cake, but I don't think this one will need it. (BTW, leaving out alcohol certainly keeps down the cost. My Black Cake has 20 pounds worth of rum/wine in it!)

Don't worry about the "other thing." Just whenever you have time.

Cindy said...

I will definitely have to check out Home Cooking as it seems like my type of book. I have plenty of cookbooks and don't need any more recipes but I enjoy reading them so much.
Your foray into fruitcake reminds me of the year I made a Yule log and the numerous preparations required before assembling the whole thing. Granted I probably didn't use the best recipe (it was a Martha Stewart recipe and she always over complicates things) but it was worth the effort.
I hope the anticipation of your Black Cake is as enjoyable as the finished product and I can't wait to see the pictures.

JaneyV said...

I'm more of a fan of the non-alcoholic version too but without candied peel and glacée cherries (yuck). I like my fruit cake to be both cakey and fruity. A big thick slice covered in butter with a mug of hot tea. It's like childhood to me. I find the alcoholic one has more of a plum pudding texture.

I do admire you taking it on. My mother and two aunts used to bake co-operatively for Christmas. Mam did the plum puddings, her sister made the Christmas cakes and my Dad's sister iced them. I think that this was quite usual in their generation. It's possibly why the quantities are always so huge in the recipes.

I love Nigella's tip for covering the cake with marmalade before the marzipan layer. That sounds delicious!

Anne said...

This sounds... amazing. I'm firmly convinced that most objects of ridicule or derision in the food world (like fruit cake) can be delicious if made at home and made well. I just might have to try this--a halved version, most likely, since neither my budget nor my circle of acquaintance will accommodate quite that much black cake.

Speaking of canning jars, I canned four pints of applesauce yesterday evening (amazing how six quarts of apples--albeit with skins--cooks down to only two quarts of sauce) and this evening will probably puree and can the tomatoes that I got in my box yesterday. What kind of chutney do you plan to make?

Nimble said...

I was so hoping for a new Bee post -- thank you!! And it's on mythical baking no less. Good for you. I wonder if all those wonderful fruits and that valuable liquor will become even more amazing when their transformation is complete. I am very glad to read the explanation for burnt sugar; I heartily approve of the concept of really carmelized brown sugar.

I hope your grail makes for good eating in the fullness of time.

Elizabeth said...

This is fascinating and sort of hilarious.
Yes, I totally remember the cake making ritual.
Except I hate dried fruit in all its manifestations.
The icing was a bit better. You put the marzipan on first. You made the icing bumpy by hitting it with the back of a fork then went to the ancient rusted tin where the battered little robin and plastic thatched cottage lived during the rest of the year......
In the end we had to invite the very hungry boysnextdoor to eat it up in January.
Glad you remember Laurie Colwin.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, Passover wine? Why would you need kosher wine in Christmas cake? It’s often sweeter and practically undrinkable, but you can get some nicer ones from CA these days. It does not have a higher alcohol content if that’s what you are thinking with Port. I’d substitute a cheap, sweet red wine.

My English mother-in-law always bakes a dense fruit cake, covered in yummy marzipan and then a white sugar frosting (as Elizabeth confirms). She adds alcohol to the Christmas pudding and lights it on fire but not to the Christmas cake. There are some images on my last X-mas blog here:

An English Christmas

Trust me, fruit cake is tastier than pickled unions.

Barrie said...

I've made and canned chutney before. Pear chutney. It was great! AND...I LOVE FRUIT CAKE. LOVE IT.

Bee said...

Cindy - I myself have a tendency to go overboard on cookbook buying, but I strongly encourage you to buy this book! It is just a dark good read, whether you ever cook from it or not. The Martha Stewart Yule Log? I'm impressed. I hope you took pictures.

JaneyV - Your sentence about a thick slice of fruitcake with a mug of tea is just everything that is cosy to me. (I know a few English people who don't drink tea, and it both perplexes and amazes me. You have to have a cuppa!) I bought way too much fruit, due to my inability to convert pounds into grams, so I will be able to experiment -- a lot -- with the sort of fruitcakes you describe. As you say, this one is more like plum pudding. You know that you're eating something excessively rich if the white icing actually "cuts" the richness.

Anne - Derision! Yes, it's the perfect word to describe the average American's attitude towards fruit cake. I would be so pleased if you joined me in my little experiment. The truth is, even half of this recipe would make quite a lot. Is this something that your family would eat? BTW, the alcoholic fruit tastes delicious. You could just serve it over vanilla ice cream.

I know exactly what you mean about the applesauce. You peel and peel, and then you end up with a few little cups of the stuff. About the chutney: I bought my canning jars yesterday. I think that I will make Delia Smith's Christmas Chutney, but I have been tempted by several others and so might change my mind at the last minute.

Nimble -- Your description made me laugh. It does feel a bit like mythical baking . . . not only because the amounts used are epic, but because I have thought about it for so many years that the Black Cake has become a sort of quest or grail. It's true that my adventures are small, but it is nice to scale new culinary landscapes.

Bee said...

Sarah - I have no idea why the original recipe calls for Passover Wine; just one of the idiosyncrasies!

I will admit that I am leery of pickled onions, but at a 50th birthday party this summer I discovered that several of our best male friends consider the pickled onion to be one of the tastiest foods around. Last week, at a cooking class, a friend recommended Delia's recipe for pickled shallots -- so I am going to attempt that for a few Xmas gifts. Whether I ever try them or not? Well, we shall see.

Barrie - Pear chutney sounds delish. When you come over to my house for a coq au vin, or braised lamb shanks, I will make sure that some fruitcake is at the ready, too.

Bee said...

Elizabeth - I didn't mean to leave you out! (Really; I wasn't being snarky about your dislike of dried fruit. You don't even like dates?)

The lack of Christmas cake accoutrement (robin,etc.) shows me up. I shall endeavor to make holly leaves, I suppose. If you don't have Christmas cake in the English style, what DOES fulfill the nostalgic requirements for you?

Taffiny said...

I have never tasted fruitcake, but now I am intrigued.

I wish I could bake. Every once in a while things turn out, but mostly not, and not often enough to be at all encouraging. I had rather bad store bought apple pie yesterday, so bad the 12 year old opted to eat cereal instead, and I thought, I wish I had that warm touch in the kitchen, so I could calmly and happily make a good pie for my family. I am glad you enjoy cooking/baking and do it so well.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

I have never had fruit cake. I've seen them, sitting at my grandparents as a kid. I've heard the jokes, obviously, but the English version sounds much less gaudy and cheesy (not literally cheesy, of course).

You are so committed to learning to cook great food and I envy that part of you. I wish I were committed enough to soak fruit for a month. You are my hero! I wish I could be like you!

Elizabeth said...

I think you can get a very little Xmas tree that looks and feels like a loo -brush.
Maybe a robin, too.
The cake in Sarah's English Christmas post was very authentic looking.
I hate dates too. Imagine living in Morocco for two years and not eating one.......

Travis Erwin said...

What a terrible waste of rum.

Kate said...

"Indeed, I am evangelical on the subject of Laurie Colwin. I spread the Word whenever and wherever I can. If I meet a fellow Laurie fan, I am instantly convinced of this person's inherent likeability and good taste. It is like skipping the first six months of getting-to-know-you and cutting straight to the chase of true friendship. More food reminiscence than cookery guide, Home Cooking is for people who like to read about food. Laurie Colwin writes cookbooks for people who are interested in the role that food that plays in our lives. "Dinner Parties" or "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir" are typical chapter titles."
Reading this made me grin widely and bop up and down in my chair like a four year old who needs to go potty.
I wish you didn't live across an ocean, Bee! I would SO be in my car right now with my copy of Black Cake, en route to your kitchen. Reading frivolity at its best!!!
Your timing for this post could not be more perfect ...
Just this morning, because there was frost on the driveway and the weatherman predicted a high in the 30's, and because my husband was still out of town, and because I made a fire and some excellent hot coffee and had on my flaming red fuzzy socks, AND had a newly washed/dried/oh-so-good-smelling sofa throw on my lap AND a cat, this morning was the morning I chose for my annual reading of Truman Capote's short story, "A Christmas Memory."
Have you read this, Bee?
If not, please rush to a bookstore and plunk down a twenty.
Before you start Colwin's black cake.

Ben said...

Wow, it's amazing how far Colwin's reach was with those two Home Cooking books. I totally agree that anyone I meet who has read them, I fall in love with instantly. Although, I will say that while "Home Cooking" was THE best book on cooking I've ever read, "More Home Cooking" was the worst...It seemed like it was ghost-written after her death, as it sounds like it was written by a completely different person, but maybe I'm totally wrong. Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I'm also making her black cake for Christmas this year, being completely mesmerized by that last chapter as well. I used Lawson's recipe as a more accurate guide as well, and have had my fruit soaking since August, in dark rum and masala wine (I have no idea what Passover wine is either, and I had masala, it smelled good, I used it). Although I used dried cherries instead of the glaceed ones because I couldn't find any that weren't that corn syrup-globbed kind, even in New York City where I live. And instead of mixed candied peel, I peeled 2 oranges, 2 lemons, 2 limes, and 2 grapefruits and candied them myself, then pureed them with the rest of the fruits. I plan on baking my cake this week and letting it age for 4 or 5 weeks until Christmas. I'm still undecided about the icing too, as I HATE fondant icing and marzipan because I think it's bland and tacky. But I do want an icing on the cake so I might have to give in and use it, since it's supposed to balance out the strong, bitter cake...or at least that's what I've read about it. I hope yours goes well, and I'll be sure to let you know how mine turns out too.

Lucy said...

I'm very impressed!

I rather like that American cherry and sultana fruit cake, but it is for lightweights.

I don't think anyone is born with an incipient liking for dried fruit confections, you have to work to acquire the taste. My GI bride auntie missed fruitcake till the day she died, I think, but could never persuade her American family to eat it.

Black bun is, it seems, the traditional dessert to follow the cock-a-leekie and haggis on Burns Night, but we never go that far.

Eccles cakes, now there's something I miss...

Two wonderful evocative posts, Bee. I think you are the displaced blogger's displaced blogger!

Bee said...

Taffiny - Really? No fruitcake ever? I have never had a homemade fruitcake -- my English mother-in-law not being much inclined towards baking -- so I am really curious to see if there is much difference. (Coincidentally, I did get a pretty nasty store-bought apple pie at her house this weekend.) I am completely brainwashed that homemade things taste infinitely better, and I also believe that home-baking is easy. If you could master one dessert, what would it be?

Alyson -- Another fruitcake avoider! What is your traditional dessert at Christmas? Believe it or not, almost all English households have either a Christmas Cake (fruitcake) or a Christmas pudding (very similar ingredients). Mince pies are also crucial -- and indeed, they were part of my indocrination into a fruitcake-is-actually-good mindset. I spent half an hour this morning, happily contemplating other Christmas treats. (BTW, did you ever make your pumpkin bread?)

Elizabeth - Well, um, is an elegant Christmas Cake an oxymoron? Because the "loo-brush" Xmas tree is really not at all what I had in mind. :) I did, in fact, wonder how you managed in Morocco if you didn't like dates.

Travis - I'm very sorry to hear that you were scarred by fruitcake as a small Texas boy. As for wasting the rum or not, I'll let you know!

Bee said...

Kate - Thank you for giving me such a vivid description of your excitement! It is, indeed, a great shame that I can't share some black cake with you. I love tea parties, too. I will look for the Capote story; I don't think that I have read it -- and if I have, then the memory needs to be dusted off.

Ben - Making your own mixed peel? You are going the whole hog. But what about the burnt sugar? Will you turn your hand at that, or just sub the molasses/treacle as Nigella advises? Let me know how you decide to resolve your icing issue; I actually like the somwhat chewy taste of Royal taste icing and marzipan. I think that a sweet blandness helps counteract the intensity of all of that rummy fruit. Please do send me an update!

Lucy - As always, you seem to get right to the heart of the matter: "dried fruit confections" are indeed an acquired taste. I seem to like them more and more each year . . . yes, it's been sixteen or so years of ripening to bring me to this point. BTW, eccles cakes -- love them! I'll have to look for a recipe.

Debski Beat said...


Sorry to be late on this one, I've just lost a much loved neighbour and didnt feel like writing.

Bee, that recipe is NOT for Trinidad black cake
a) they ask for Jamaican Rum !!!
b) dried figs ... nope.
c) almonds ... someone added that as a 'wind up"

I am sitting in a room in my house with 2 x Trinidad Black Cake a recipe which I have been making for 30 years (as you know I am married to a 5 generation 'Trini'), the best recipe for Trinidad black cake in the modern sense can be found in a book written by the Naparima Girls School

I do have some recipes that go back to pre WW2 and a truly lovely one although very dense given to me by a Chinese Trinidadian lady 30 years ago, all good stuff ....( NO Jamaican rum :)

Fruit soaking can start the year before and in years prior I have had 'fruits' soaked for years.

My Gran ( an Edwardian Englishwoman) made a fabulous fruit cake , very different to the Trinidad kind with glace fruit on the top and then glazed with apricot syrup. Fortnum and Mason make a fruitcake that is divine,104.aspx

Fruit cake in general is a love or hate. A slow oven, well greased pans and heavy pans are the gift. dust the fruits lightly in flour just before baking so that they 'float in the cake' and not sink to the bottom. keep fingers crossed, pray for an even temperature, no electricity or gas fluctuations and if all else fails, cover in marzipan and icing or/ heavy hot syrup and call it something else !!

david mcmahon said...

My grandmother made the BEST Christmas fruit cake ....

Ben said...

Hi Bee,

I've been reading every other recipe I can come across about traditional black cake, and they all seem to think that subbing molasses, cane syrup, or the like would be an absolute travesty to black cake because it's supposed to have that burnt sugar flavor. So I plan on making my own burnt sugar syrup. Most recipes call for blackening 1 cup of sugar and then adding water to make a syrup. Since I'm going to try to not mess up Nigella's recipe too much, I'll try it out and anly add enough water to make a "molasses" consistency. I'll let you know how that fares after this weekend when I make it. As for the frosting, I see you're point, and I've also read that same justification on the strict, traditional recipes, so I think I'll try a thin layer of marzipan on top, with the fondant over the top and sides. Still not sure on the decorations on top yet...taking it one step at a time, ha! But I'll update you as I go, and please let me know how your's is going too.

bonbon said...

As awlays a pleasure to read and your blog evoked childhood memories. Firstly days of yore when my grandmother and mother would tolerate me in the kitchen as they prepared the Xmas cake. I recall the smell of the parchment slightly scorched as the cake came out of the oven. The dryness of the brown paper and the comfort of the oven cooking slowly all day and releasing a rich aroma. Incidentally the use of brown paper to cover the baking tins is vitally important to avoid the cake burning. I Secondly returned to our days in T&T and do not recall either of us making Black Cake but I do remember eating it. My friend made one that was almost liquid and oozed off the plate. I also had to laugh as I am using Nigella's "How to be a Domestic Goddess" (which you gave to me) as a prop for my computer. It is the perfect height to raise my screen and help me reduce neck ache! Have you read Delia's Xmas Book. There is a recipe in there for Creole cake which she acquired on a trip to Trinidad from the wife of a sugar plantation owner who provides the raw sugar that Billington's export.
TIPS My chef/teacher told me to fold all dry fruit into flour to avoid it sinking. Which now explains why so may of my dundee and cherry cakes were bottom heavy! As to the burnt sugar the name says it all. Beware it burns very easily and the pot is a pain to clean. TIP after you make the sugar boil water in it on the stove to help clean it.
I shall not be baking a cake this year as we leave on Boxinf Day for Machu Picchu and it will only fester as none of mine or my visitors will eat it. I am sure ven G. Cracker with his ability to consume all baked goods provide would tire soon enough of 7 lb's of fruit cake. I did however purchase one at a recent Bazarre home made by an ex-pat Brit. Given the humidity here it is not a good idea to marzipan and ice Xmas cakes. So I shall buy(yes buy! it is only for G and I) or prepare if I am feeling adventurous and add it to my bought but home made cake.
To make up for the slide into a decadent gratifying retail purchase I have however got mincemeat I made last year and a jar of M&S m/meat. So to stick with tradition I shall be making Mince Pies and using mmy little tin you bought me and preparing the Gingerbread Men recipe we made together in T&T. So all in all a walk down memory lane for me. Thank you for the stroll and please save me a slice of Xmas cake I am sure it will be useful for energy boost on a bike ride!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Our traditional Christmas dessert is homemade candies and cookies. We had homemade caramels, toffee, peanut butter cookies with a hersey kiss in the middle, etc. So yummy! I remember there being fruitcake around, but only the grown-ups touched it. My mom wasn't into fruitcake either. So, she never pushed it on me. I want to try the English version though!

Yes, I did make the pumpkin bread and I'll definitely be making some more for Thanksgiving.

Bee said...

Debski - I promise that no figs or almonds have gone into my "fruits" (to be said with a Trini accent, please). Where do you stand on the subject of grated lime zest? I have found two Trini recipes that call for it, but the LC recipe doesn't. (To be fair, the Laurie Colwin recipe comes from a woman from St. Vincent -- and therefore, does not pretend to be true Trini.)

I would particularly like some guidance on the icing issue, and the order of mixing issue. Also, do you grease and line your pans . . . or just grease?

If my cake doesn't come out the tins well, I think that I might fold it in to some good vanilla ice cream. Kind of like the brown bread ice cream. Have you ever had that? BTW, the naparimagirlscookbook link led me into an interesting world of Trini cookery. Thanks, as always, for your contributions to this ongoing food conversation!!

David - It's no good telling us that if you don't share the recipe. (Do you have it? Shameless plea.)

Ben - I'm looking forward to an ongoing conversation on this topic. As our fruit steeps in its alcoholic juices, we can happily make plans for our uber-cakes. Did you read Debski and Bon Bon's comments? They both bring an interesting Anglo/Trini experience to the topic.

Bon Bon - Thanks for the brown paper and mixing fruits with flour tip. You know, I vaguely remember trying Black Cake in Trinidad -- and thinking that it was lethally alcoholic. I didn't really make my mince pie breakthrough until 2000, though, and since then my fruit cake interest has gradually developed. Funny you should mention Delia's Creole Cake, though, because I was just checking out that recipe the other day. It looks to be a different sort of thing altogether . . . maybe for next year?
I've got some homemade mincemeat from last year, too.

BTW, according to sources, a good Black Cake will not fester . . . in fact, it will "keep" for ages!

Alyson - We always made homemade candy, too. Let's compare toffee recipes!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Yes, totally, let's do it.

Ben said...

Hi Bee,

So I baked my cake today, and I have never been more gratified. Here's exactly what I did. First I weighed my fruit: The whole amount was exactly 4 lbs., so since Lawson called for half, I used 2 lbs. and plan to keep adding some every year to the same jar (more on that later). And I did make my own burnt sugar syrup, although I forgot to use brown sugar and used white sugar instead, but I'll try the brown sugar next year. Used 1 cup white sugar, cooked it until it looked jet black and almost boiled over, then threw in 1/2 cup boiling splattered like heck (so stand back if you try this), but after I cleaned up the small mess, it turned out o give me the perfect consistency I was looking for...only slightly thinner than molasses. And even though I cooked it until I thought it couldn't get any blacker, after I added the water and it set up, it was still just dark burgundy, not black, but oh well. I followed Nigella's directions from there, but I creamed the butter and brown sugar for a good 2 minutes and at least 15 seconds after each egg. Oh, and I used dark muscovado sugar, not regular brown. Moving on, after I mixed the batter, even with the fruit mixture, muscovado, and "burnt" syrup, the batter was the color of wet sand, not black like Nigella's directions say it should be. I was set up to be slightly disappointed in my lack of blackness, but when I went to turn the oven down to 325-degrees after the first hour, the cake was already black! So i was happy, and I found that my cake was done by that 2 1/2 hour mark at 325-degrees. As soon as my cake came out of the oven, I did something I had read in other recipes - pour over more rum. Since I wanted my cake to "age" from now until Christmas, I wanted to pour the rum over the baked cake so it wouldn't have a chance of spoiling. I had 1 nip of Clement rum and 1 nip of Clement orange liqueur lying around from a party a year ago, so i added those to a measuring cup, then filled it up to the 1 cup mark with some expensive-reserve Martinique had a nice citrus-rum thing going on. I poured the whole cup over the cake in a slow drizzle and it drank all of it up quickly. I contemplated adding more, but I didn't want to my aunt to get a DUI on her drive home after eating it. I let the cake cool completely in the pan, as Lawson recommends, then I unmolded it, wrapped it in rum-soaked cheesecloth. I then wrapped that in butcher's paper, and then again in aluminum foil. It now sits in a cool, dark area in my cupboard for the next 5 weeks...plenty of time to do more work on frosting options. I hope this helps you (especially if your batter isn't black before it's baked like mine was...that was the only worry I had the whole time), and please let me know how yours is going.

Bee said...

Ben - You are a star! Thank you so much for your detailed instructions. After reading them over, I'm considering doing what you did and saving half of the fruit until next year. (This might have something to do with the fact that I made a double batch of chutney yesterday.) I wasn't planning on making my cake until the second week of December -- which should give my fruit a month to marinate. I think that I may forego the step of "feeding" the cake more rum. We will have to compare the end products -- and then adjust for next year! Again, thanks so much for the good advice and input.

High Desert Diva said...

Maybe with this much alcohol, I could eat fruit cake.

Whether figurative or a moniker, Bee Drunken is divine...

Bee said...

Thank you, your diva-ness! I will be bringing forth Black Cake updates soon . . .

Ben said...

Hey Bee,

Sorry this is so late of a post but I just realized I never let you know how my black cake turned out. The answer? Not so good. After it aged for a month, I brought it home with me on the plane from NYC to Mississippi and the day before Christmas I opened it up and iced it with some marzipan and thick royal icing, since I forgot to get some fondant before I left the city. After our Christmas dinner, i cut into the cake and it smelled great. We all sat down to take a bite of our large slices, and...that was all anyone could stomach. It's not that the cake was bad, but it was SO RICH that it was an actual chore to eat. My aunt and I (the only ones in my family with a taste for non-Southern food) liked it okay, but it was too intense and...a little more bitter than I thought it would be. I guess my Southern upbringing and my giant sweet tooth has left me with the desire of really sweet cakes, which I love, and this one just wasn't that sweet. But instead of shunning it altogether, I think I'll just not age it next time...maybe eating it fresh the day I make it will keep the intensity of flavors down. And I might cut the recipe in half to have a thinner cake that's easier to consume in one sitting. And even though it's not traditional at all, I might "Southern-ify" it by splitting the cake in half and putting either more fondant or a sweet icing in the middle, in addition to on top and the sides. I know that changes what true black cake is, but since I'm not from the Caribbean, I can make that change and just not let anyone know because I do love the flavor of the cake, but it was just, well, "too much". Here's to next year's sweeter, Southern hybrid. How was yours?

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