Black Cake- A Caribbean Christmas Must-Have
Black cake, a Christmas treat popular throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, is such a beloved and eagerly awaited tradition that making the cake for the next year frequently begins on New Year's Day. This is due to the fact that a variety of dried fruits, including raisins, currants, prunes, and citrus peel, are one of the unique ingredients of this dense, spiced cake. These fruits are steeped for months in a boozy bath of rum, wine, or cherry brandy. Whatever name you give it, black cake differs significantly from fruitcake made in the United States. It goes by various names, including Jamaican Christmas cake, Caribbean fruitcake, rum cake, etc.
A uniquely Afro-Caribbean spin on an old-school British baking tradition that also includes dense European fruitcakes and English plum puddings, black cake is a revolution all on its own. The traditional wedding cake in the Caribbean is black cake. In order to discover more about the history of black cake and why you can't have a real Caribbean Christmas without it, we chatted with Candice Goucher, emerita professor of history at Washington State University and author of "Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food."
History Baked In A Cake
Tucking into a slice of black cake is like devouring a piece of Caribbean colonial history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, more than a dozen Caribbean islands were part of the British West Indies, a colonial outpost established on a rich sugar industry fueled by enslaved African labor. The conditions on a sugar plantation were harsh and unpleasant. To subdue insurrection and remove societal tensions, plantation owners would throw out rations of rum, a strong alcoholic liquor manufactured from fermenting the sweet juice extracted from sugar cane.
Role-reversal rites, such as the temporary switching of master and slave, were practiced on Christmas, New Year's, and Easter. The enslaved laborers made the conscious decision not to take on their original oppressive responsibilities at at least two of these holiday bacchanals. Both the historic Jamaican slave revolt of 1831–1832 and the Barbados slave uprising of 1816 occurred over significant holidays. The English brought the custom of English plum puddings, which were frequently preserved on lengthy sea trips by being soaked in brandy. But rum, which was more widely available, took the role of brandy in the Caribbean.
According to Goucher, "black cake itself has been compared to a cross between an English plum pudding and a pound cake, but it's much more than that." The key component of black cake is a molasses-like, jet-black liquid known as "browning" that is prepared from burnt sugar. It's a mainstay of Caribbean cooking that gives savory meals like chicken and desserts sweetness and depth. The browning in black cake is the highlight. Black cake is distinctive because of its darker, more complex flavor, according to Goucher: "It gives the cake an almost bittersweet caramel flavor." Instead of tasting like a fruitcake, it is much more reminiscent of an extremely moist chocolate cake.
In the days before refrigeration, preserving a dessert with alcohol and sugar was a tried-and-true method. The dried fruits and other ingredients in the classic English plum pudding were designed to be kept by copious amounts of cognac, brandy, sherry, and port so that it could be consumed a full year after it was made. A plum pudding or other fruit-filled Christmas cake is "fed" with a few more sips of alcohol to keep it moist if it is in danger of drying out during its lengthy incubation period. Black cake is the same way. To properly infuse the dried fruits with alcohol, rum and cherry brandy are used to soak them for months or even up to a year. Then, depending on whether you prefer a cake-like or pudding-like texture, the rum-soaked fruits are either softly mashed or totally blended to further enhance the cake's deep color and very rich flavor. The cake is a good match for hard sauce or whiskey sauce.
A glass of sorrel, a red beverage produced with the leaves of the sorrel or red hibiscus plant, and a thin slice of rich, alcoholic black cake are traditional Christmastime treats in the Caribbean. Any cake that isn't consumed by the end of the party is lavishly fed rum to keep it moist. In fact, a home baker might produce multiple cakes to ensure there are enough for the holiday season or to give some away as gifts. It wouldn't be Christmas in the Caribbean without that dense, fruity, complex, dark, spicy, full-of-rum cake, according to Goucher, "because rum is closely related to the rituals of recollection, and that's what the Christmas season is all about."
Bake Your Own
Making your own black cake from scratch requires tremendous commitment and forethought. You should at least soak the fruits for a few weeks, even though many Caribbean bakers soak their dried fruit in rum for a full year. If you're short on time, a workaround is to cook the fruit for five minutes in rum and/or sherry, let it cool, and then put it in the fridge overnight. You'll get a good idea of the appropriate taste. The distinctive syrup created from burnt sugar is called browning. Browning is available in bottles, such as the well-known brand Grace, or you can manufacture it yourself. Even though the recipe only calls for two cups of granulated sugar and one cup of water, it requires practice.
It is necessary to cook the sugar until it liquefies, caramelizes, and acquires a dark brown tint in order to make browning. Because this process might become smokey, turn on the oven fan and open some windows. Take the pot off the heat just before the sugar changes from brown to black, then carefully stir in hot water, cold water will cause the sugar to re-harden. Every Caribbean native will tell you that their mother's black cake recipe is the best, but this one from The New York Times contains both dark rum and Passover wine for extra sweetness. Goucher claims that the final phase, when you include the ground fruit and browning into the cake mixture, is crucial. She cautions, "You don't want it to be brown. You desire that it be black.