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