“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 glacé 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 flavor and color 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 labor 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 labor involved in making their own.
I had new cred.
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 organizational 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 flavor 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 favorites 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 flavors in her cake that probably come from “mixed essence,” a commercially prepared flavor 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, color 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.
Shiue is a physician, food writer and cooking teacher in San Francisco. She blogs at SpiceboxTravels.com.