It’s rare to find someone who makes black cake well. My first introduction to it was through my grandmother, Selsie. My maternal family is from Belize, and there were only rumors of a distant relative who baked black cake. My family baked milk cake, a Belizean specialty, but that was a different kind of cake. Fortunately, Selsie’s coworker and friend, Ms. Ruby, was a Jamaican woman who baked black cake by request for Christmas.
Throughout my childhood, my grandmother would come home from her hospital job, where she and Ms. Ruby worked as nurse’s aides, with recycled cookie tins filled with cake--likely Royal Dansk tins, since it was the perfect diameter and easy to convert into a cake container. The almost airtight quality of the tin ensured the cake would remain fresh throughout the holiday season and beyond. Overall, I liked Ms. Ruby’s black cake because she added a splash of rum to her version after baking, which some people do. At nine years old, eating it felt deliciously wild. But she didn’t grind the fruits, so I patiently picked them all out to arrive at little bits of cake. Still, it was worth the effort. After my grandmother passed away, my mother continued to order cake from Ms. Ruby annually to maintain the tradition. Eventually, she passed away, too, and we experienced a black cake drought for years.
This changed when a friend of the family made black cake for us about four years ago. As is typical of Caribbean culture, Shelly-Ann* is a home baker, baking for family and friends, only; my family orders cakes from her often. She started baking at 12 years old in St. Vincent where her family hails from and perfected her black cake 20 years ago. “I used a basic cake recipe then added fruit. I experimented, soaking the fruit, then mixing it in a food processor, until I created the right recipe,” she says.
Christmas is mere days away, but enjoying a piece of this Caribbean tradition is still an option. While Shelly-Ann doesn’t accept commercial orders, here are a few places that offer black cake by the slice or as whole cakes this holiday season: