What’s to say about that dark, rummy, aromatic fruit cake known throughout the Caribbean as Black Cake? More than can be written here. It’s the stuff family legend is made of, and mastering the perfect Black Cake is no easy task. Here is the essay about this must-have for holiday cheer, along with my now-infamous recipe that took many years to perfect.
A Cake to End All Others
Black cake is traditionally a Christmas cake or a wedding cake. When it is used for weddings, a boiled white icing is added. However, of late, I’ve noticed that it is also offered at other special occasions like graduations or christenings.
Every family has a bottle of fruit soaking for their Christmas black cake—usually, for some odd reason, under the kitchen sink, a fact that leads my friend Patrick Dooley to call it “under the sink cake.” In fact, as soon as I’m done doing my round of Christmas baking, the jar gets refilled to soak for next year’s batch. Most people have their own way of doing black cake, from the ingredients in the soaking liquid to whether the fruit is soaked whole or first pureed, to using white versus light or dark brown sugar. Some, like my friend Darrel Sukhdeo, like their Black Cake to be as moist as pudding while others like a more “cakey” consistency. The recipe in this book is one that I have developed based on trial, error, and personal taste and uses the creaming method for a fluffier but moist cake.
For me, Black Cake conjures up all kinds of personal lore. I remember my cousin Pinky from Tobago sending my father a Black Cake every December as a Christmas treat. She often added Guinness stout to her fruit-soaking liquid, although some folks, like my friend Shairoon Nicholas, use Malta Carib, a non-alcoholic stout. Pinky’s Black Cake arrived wrapped in tinfoil and nestled in a cookie tin, having borne the three-week boat trip totally and utterly unscathed. The long soaking in wine and rum, along with post-baking basting, kept the cake well preserved for weeks on end. It would sit, wrapped, on the kitchen table, and Ramesh and I would steal little nips of it, although we had been told to leave it alone because of its heavy alcohol content. I suspect the fact that we picked around the bits of fruit to the creamy cake itself, effectively mangling the poor loaf, didn’t help our case either. My only regret is that I didn’t master Black Cake until after my father died, so he never tasted my version.
Before my husband and I were married, during our first Christmas together, he watched me struggle to make ten Black Cakes for friends and relatives using an old hand mixer. I had never attempted to make such a volume before and the old machine was barely up to the task. It was a long, laborious process. Imagine my surprise on Christmas morning, when I opened a box to reveal a standing 6-quart mixer.
“I just couldn’t bear watching you struggle with all those cakes,” was J.P.’s comment.
That mixer remains one of my most treasured gifts and it proved its mettle when I made two hundred mini Black Cakes as favors for my brother’s wedding. Of course, every Christmas it sees its finest hours as I turn out batch after batch of Black Cake for eager friends and relatives.
For many years I thought Black Cake was a variation on English plum pudding brought to the island by English colonists. On a research trip to Ireland in 2008, I came to learn about Christmas Cake, a confection of liquor-soaked dried fruits made specifically for the winter holidays. Sure enough, further research revealed that Trinidad was among those English colonial islands that had a fairly large population of Irish indentured laborers. Jamaica, Barbados, and Montesserat are the notable others. While subsumed by the larger Indian and African populations, certain Irish throwbacks remain, such as a love for Guinness, Sea Moss Drink, and Black Cake which only differs from Irish versions by the liquor used and the use of burnt sugar syrup to make the cake dark.
Many a culinarian has waxed prolific about the Black Cake’s rich aromatic flavors and unusual texture that is something between a plum pudding and a pound cake. Although it could technically be called a fruitcake because of the candied and dried fruits that comprise its bulk, no fruitcake ever tasted this good!
Special credit must be given here to Mrs. Irma Hannays of Woodbrook, a former librarian-turned-pastry-chef who is noted throughout Trinidad and many other Caribbean Islands for her sweet hands when it comes to making wedding and other special occasion cakes. Mrs. Hannays, who turns out prodigious numbers of Black Cakes every year for friends, family, and clients, developed the fast-soaking variation offered below—a great boon to Black Cake lovers who want to have their cake and eat it too “now for now” as we say in Trinidad.
1 pound raisins
1 pound currants
1 pound prunes
1/4 pound mixed citrus peel
1/2 pound candied cherries
4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine
4 cups dark rum, such as Old Oak
1 cinnamon stick
2 star anise pods
1/2 vanilla bean
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon mixed essence
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup*
1/4 cup dark rum
1/4 cup cherry brandy
2 tablespoons sherry
1. Long-soak method for fruit (see alternate quick-soak method below): Place all the fruit ingredients except the vanilla bean in a gallon jar that can be tightly sealed—preferably with a suction lid. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds. Add these to the jar, along with the bean. Mix very well and seal. Store, unrefrigerated, in a cool, dark place for at least 3 weeks or up to 1 year.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease two 9-inch round cake pans.
3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.
4. Place the butter and sugar in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the mixed essence and vanilla.
5. Using a slotted spoon, remove 5 cups of the soaked fruit from the jar or all of the cooked fruits from the saucepan if using quick-soak method, reserving liquid. Place in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to a coarse paste. Add fruit paste to the batter and beat well.
6. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.
7. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 40 minutes, then lower the heat to 250°F and bake for another 45 minute to an hour, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
8. Remove from the oven and cool for 20 minutes in the pan. Combine the rum, brandy, and sherry for basting, or if you used the quick-soak method use the reserved liquid for basting, and evenly brush the cooled cakes with this mixture. Allow the cakes to cool completely.
9. Remove cakes from the pans. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and then tinfoil. You may also place the cakes in a tightly lidded plastic container. Store in a cool, dry place for at least 3 days before eating. Black cake can be stored for up to 3 months in the refrigerator. If doing so, rebaste with the basting mixture once every 2 weeks.
*TIP: Commercially prepared burnt sugar syrup is available in West Indian markets. If you cannot find it, you can make your own by placing 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, swirling the sugar in the pan until it starts to caramelize. Continue swirling until the sugar syrup becomes very dark brown—almost black. Add to batter as needed.
Alternate quick-soak method for fruit: Combine 1 cup raisins, 1 cup currants, 1 cup pitted prunes, 3 tablespoons mixed citrus peel, and 1 cup candied cherries, cinnamo stick and anise in a large saucepan with 1 1/2 cups cherry brandy and 1 1/2 cups rum.Place saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, then cover and remove from heat. Allow to cool completely before using.