“I started soaking my fruit two weeks ago,” I bragged to my brother-in-law at Thanksgiving last year.
He glared at me, “Good.. You can make a black cake next year, then.”
Mind you, this is my brother-in-law who never cooks, unless you count opening take-out containers. But he’s got a point. Come Christmastime, the measure of a Trinidadian cook is how far in advance she has soaked her dried fruit in rum and brandy for making the Christmas treat known as black cake.
I’m not from Trinidad. I’m an Asian American born in Kentucky and raised on Long Island. But ever since I met the Trinidadian man who would become my husband, I’ve been learning to make his country’s national dishes, and that includes black cake.
For the record, the cake has dried and glac? fruit and peel in it, but don’t dare call it a fruitcake. Black cake, which is also made in other parts of the formerly British Caribbean, including Jamaica and Guyana, traces its roots to British plum pudding, with additional historical notes in the rum and molasses (or, better yet, burnt sugar) that flavour and colour it. The recipe in Trinidad’s folk bible of home cooking, the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook, known commonly as the “Naps Girls’ Cookbook,” calls for soaking the fruit for a minimum of two days before baking your cake, but in my family, two days of soaking will get you lots of laughs and no respect, believe me. (It might also result in your being subject to the “steups,” an expression of annoyance, perhaps disgust, that involves making a sucking sound through the teeth.)
Making black cake is a labour of love and an achievement to boast about. When I first tried making one several years back, I boldly sent it to my husband’s family around the country and even to his sister in Trinidad. They were all shocked at how good it tasted. Turns out, none of them had attempted the task; there are plenty of good black cakes available for purchase in bakeries in Trinidad, and most people don’t seem to enjoy the labour involved in making their own.
I also had a few critics, “You sure you can make a black cake with the rum and cherry brandy you buy in America?” asked one. A guest visiting from Trinidad told me the cake tasted authentic, but only if he ate it with his eyes closed, because it was more brown than black. “It’s called black cake for a reason,” he cackled. In subsequent attempts, I’ve darkened my cake until it lived up to its name, by making sure the browning (burnt sugar) is cooked until it is almost black and using lots of it.
Making a great black cake requires not only organisational skills (remembering early to start soaking the fruit in booze, then periodically stirring so it soaks evenly) and elbow grease (with all that rum-soaked fruit, it’s a heavy batter), but also enough experience tasting various cakes to know what balance of fruits can create your own signature flavour profile.
Despite my critics, I knew I had a good thing, because my black cake tasted pretty much like that of Auntie Doll, my husband’s Indian great aunt, who I think is one of the best cooks in Trinidad. Auntie Doll’s version is one of my favourites for its simplicity and excess: It includes a bottle of rum, a bottle of cherry brandy, a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, a pound each of four different dried fruits, a dozen eggs and “some spice.”
Auntie Doll has never given me her exact recipe, but from tasting her cake, I think the spice is a combination of cinnamon and nutmeg. Still, there are hints of more complex flavours in her cake that probably come from “mixed essence,” a commercially prepared flavour extract in Trinidad that is used the way one might use vanilla and contains notes of pear, citrus, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. She also hasn’t clarified which dried fruits she uses.
It’s those types of vague and unquantified secret ingredients that make it impossible to replicate someone else’s black cake recipe. As for my version, over the years I have varied the dried fruits I use for taste, colour and moistness, and I consider the addition of dates to be my own signature.
No matter what recipe you try, if you want black cake for Christmas — this year or next — you would do well to start soaking that fruit. ASAP.
Trinidad Black Cake
Feel free to vary amounts and types of dried fruits and spices depending on availability and your preference. To ensure the darkness of this cake, be sure to use plenty of dark fruits, such as prunes and dark raisins.
Be forewarned of the unpredictable effects of this cake’s high alcohol content on your guests.
You’ll need three nine-inch-round cake pans or four eight-inch-round ones.
Make Ahead: Fruit for the cake can be macerated for at least two days and up to one year in advance. The cakes can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in an airtight container for up to one month. For best flavour, let the cakes sit for a day or two before serving.
Tested size: 36-48 servings; makes three nine-inch-round cakes or four eight-inch-round cakes
1 lb pitted prunes
1 lb dark raisins
1/2 lb pitted dates
1 lb dried currants
1 lb dried cherries
8 ounces glac? cherries
4 ozs mixed candied citrus peel
3 cups dark rum, plus more as needed
1 1/2 cups cherry brandy (may substitute Manischewitz Concord grape wine), plus extra for grinding fruit
4 ozs blanched, slivered or sliced almonds
2 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup boiling water
1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for the pans
1 lb dark brown sugar
10 large eggs
Finely grated zest of 2 limes
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp Angostura bitters
1 lb flour
4 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
Combine the prunes, raisins, dates, currants, both kinds of cherries, the candied citrus peel, two cups of the rum and all the brandy in a large container with a tight-fitting lid. Let sit at room temperature for at least two days and up to one year. Shake or stir the mixture occasionally.
When ready to bake, combine the macerated fruit mixture with its liquid and the almonds in a blender or food processor and process in batches, using extra brandy to loosen. Grind to a coarse paste, leaving centimetre-size chunks of some of the fruit intact for texture.
Pour the granulated sugar into a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the sugar has melted and caramelised until almost black; it will smoke a bit and it’s much darker than you’ve caramelised sugar before. Turn off the heat, then carefully add the boiling water (furious steam here), stirring to incorporate. It may stiffen up before you add some of the caramelised sugar to the batter, just return the pot to a burner on low heat, which will loosen it up again.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Use butter to grease three nine-inch or four eight-inch pans, then line the bottom of each with a double layer of parchment paper.
Combine the four sticks of butter and the dark brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer; beat on low, then medium speed for several minutes, until light and fluffy. Stop to scrape down the bowl. On low speed, beat in the eggs, one at a time, then add the lime zest, vanilla extract and the Angostura bitters, beating until well incorporated. Scrape the very wet batter into a very large mixing bowl.
Combine the flour, baking powder and cinnamon on a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper. Fold the flour into a very large mixing bowl.
Combine the flour, baking powder and cinnamon on a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper. Fold the flour mixture by hand into the butter mixture, then gradually stir in the macerated fruit paste and 1/4 cup of the black/caramelised sugar. This is a very heavy batter, and stirring will take muscle; you might want to divide among a couple of bowls for mixing in a stand mixer; you can use a dough-hook attachment. The batter should be the colour of dark walnuts; if the colour seems too tan or light, stir in more or all of the black/caramelised sugar as needed.
Divide the batter among prepared pans, filling them almost to the top. Bake for one hour, then reduce the temperature to 225 degrees; bake for about two hours, or until a tester inserted into the centre of each cake comes out clean. Transfer the cakes, in their pans, to wire racks to cool.
While the cakes are cooling, baste them with the some of the remaining cup of rum every few minutes until the cakes are cool and/or no longer absorb rum. They will absorb several tablespoons each; you may not use all the rum.
When completely cool, invert the cakes onto plates. The cakes are ready to serve, but will taste better if they sit for at least a few days.
(The Washington Post)
Linda Shiue blogs at SpiceboxTravels.com.