Thursday, 18 December 2008

Black Cake Redux

If you are just now tuning in to the Black Cake saga,
you might want to visit my first Black Cake post.
(I'm sure that just exiting never crossed your mind!)
Just getting started: Burning my sugar
"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 not want to overboil.
It should be only slightly bitter, black and definitely burnt.
(Home Cooking, p. 179)

The fire alarm is now going off,
and the kitchen is filled with smoke

It might be burnt sugar, but it sure isn't the "essence"
It hardens into something akin to pahoehoe lava

I end up playing something like

the paper-scissors-rock game:

heat hardens sugar, water melts it.

It took a LOT of hot water to melt this lava.

I'm not sure if I've actually made Black Cake yet, because I never did manage to burn any sugar properly.

For my first round of cakes - half a recipe, as per Colwin's instructions in Home Cooking, makes a big cake and a smallish cake -- I finally got fed up and used molasses. I wouldn't have done this under my own steam, but Nigella Lawson recommended precisely this course of action in HER homage to Black Cake. Unfortunately, at this juncture in the Black Cake making, it was approximately midnight and I had ten people coming for dinner the next day. Black Cake was meant to be the Christmas Cake -- in other words, not only the dessert, but also the symbolic crowning of the occasion. I couldn't afford to be picky or authentic.

The next morning I put a nice thick layer of marzipan on the big cake, then laid down a smooth sheet of roll-out Royal icing over that. Some Christmas trees, cut and dyed from the Royal icing, completed the whole and gave it that Christmas Cake signature look. (I would have taken a picture, but what with decorating and mince pie making and producing a large roast dinner, my back was against the wall, rather.) I did save you a slice, though.

A piece of the "first" Black Cake
The crowd's reaction: Despite my many disclaimers, which made the guests a bit nervous, the cake was fairly well-received. My daughter and sister-in-law, who don't like chunks of dried fruit, preferred it to the normal sort of Christmas Cake. Everyone else liked it well enough to have a slice -- and we all agreed that it tasted delicious with a large dab of brandy butter.

But here is the strange, deja vu moment: upon tasting the Black Cake, Sigmund and I realized that we had eaten some of the stuff when we lived in Trinidad. After all of these years of mythologizing Laurie Colwin's Black Cake, I realized that I had eaten it at least a decade ago! And it made no impression on me! Well, I was left with some impression -- and this Sigmund verified. I remember Trinidad Black Cake as being sort of damp, gummy and gelatinous -- and extremely rummy. I remember not liking it much.

After the month of marinating my fruit and dreaming about my Black Cake to come, it was a sobering moment. Rather than discovering the lost chord of Colwin's cake, I felt like I had lost it even more completely. It turned out to be nothing but an over-stimulated dream -- some Xanadu or Camelot or equally lost magical kingdom! On the positive side, Sigmund - who does not lavish praise - said he actually preferred my cake to the one he tasted so long ago.

Not to be deterred, and since I still had half of "my fruits," I wrote my friend Debski -- who is an expert on things culinary and Trini. She sent back the following advice:

Never, never use molasses. The flavour is too strong.
The cake needs to "rest" three days minimum.
Traditionally, Trinis do not ice their cakes.
Feed the cake with a couple of tablespoons of rum/cherry brandy while it is warm, and then another tablespoon after it cools.
The cake MUST stay in the tin while it is being fed and rested.

Oops. I didn't do ANY of these things. Perhaps this is why my cake was merely nice as opposed to epic?

Not long ago, I finally put a stat counter on my blog and I was AMAZED to see how many people had found me through a Googled Black Cake search. I'm assuming that most of these people have been beguiled by Colwin's recipe, but confused by her lack of specificity on certain points, because they asked exactly the sort of questions which Debski answered for me. Without a true Trini to refer to, we having been baking in the dark.

Debski also shared another interesting tidbit with me. Apparently, instead of messing about with burnt sugar, many modern Trinis use browning (yes, for gravy) to achieve the proper shade of blackness in their cake. WHAT?! I could only think, "ew, gross."

Second round of burning sugar: I was determined to cook it slowly.
I had my pound of sugar and I added a bit of water. I stirred and stirred. It became grainy; it turned into sugar again. I added some more water. It became grainy again; it blackened only slightly. And on and on like this for 45 minutes -- at which point I gave up again. I salvaged a bit of this sort of burnt grit for my cake and I moved on. Next year, I'm going to ask for a burnt sugar tutorial. (There must be a secret to it!)

This time, I followed Laurie's recipe and Debski's instructions. My second cake is now resting, having being fed with the prescribed rum. I will leave it to sit until New Year's, and then I will present it to my old Trinidad crowd for a test taste.

The Black Cake saga continues . . .
but still a question remains in my mind. Could it be that Trini Black Cake is different from the recipe that Laurie Colwin got from St. Vincentian babysitter? Can this lost cake EVER be recovered?


willow said...

Oooo...this black cake looks so dark, dense and moist. Um-umm! Looks like success to me. Slice a piece for me, too, please!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Well, it certainly looks delicious--a lot nicer than I imagined. I am sure the one you left resting will transform itself into something divine come New Years. :-)

Nimble said...

Dear Bee,
I'm sorry that the grail is proving so elusive. Glad it was reasonably tasty at least. I found out that one of my other favorite bloggers is a Colwinophile and blogged his black cake experience here. That post contains his technique for burnt sugar. Definitely not authentically Trinidadian. But I hope you enjoy reading his long winded explication. Whenever you're ready to think about baking again...

Greta said...

I wanted to eat the screen when I saw that slice of cake. No, really!

I would be too terrified to attempt burning sugar correctly - you were brave! I'm still struggling to saute onions.

Have you ever tried sticky date pudding? I think you would like it.

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Bee said...

Willow - If only I COULD send you a piece! We have got LOTS. I just got back from hols, and I am going to have to ice the Black Cake #2 tomorrow.

JAPRA - We shall see!

Nimble - What fun to read about another Black Cake chaser! (How do you find all of these great sites? I wonder if you could get a job working for Blogger?)

Greta - I am a veteran candy maker, but I certainly met my Waterloo with the burnt sugar thing.

Sticky date pudding sounds exactly what I like, and I just happen to have some dates left over!

Blog Princess G said...

I tried black cake once, and it was wonderful... and it looked a lot like yours. Well done!

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Anonymous said...

That cake looks just like my mom's. I know the burnt sugar filled kitchen experience, waked up to that alot of mornings when mommy was making black cake for christmas...It looks real good. There is no better cake than trini black cake...