Booze-Soaked Caribbean Black Cake Will Make You Forget All About Fruitcake
A holiday-themed or recycled butter cookies tin is a hallmark of Caribbean black cake. Once the lid is lifted, the cake is likely covered in clear plastic wrap or wax paper, but the faint, sweet smell of rum or wine and fruit wafts through the air. Black cake is soft but dense, like a memory foam pillow. And, unlike most cakes, such as angel food or German chocolate, black cake is heavy but moist, has a rich, chewy texture, and is, as its name implies, black, thanks to one of its primary ingredients — burnt sugar.
First bites are filled with a bit of sweetness — that’s the taste of sugar, raisins, prunes and cherries — while the aftertaste is a subtle hint of wine, another primary ingredient. Black cake is a labor of love; fruits are soaked in wine or rum, depending on preference, for a year in tightly sealed mason jars.
Because black cake is a Christmas treat, it is consumed in small quantities. My family’s love for it extends to any and all holidays, so it’s on the dessert table for Thanksgiving, too. An extra-large slice (an eighth of the entire cake) remains in my refrigerator today, wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in a sealed Ziplock bag. The one tin I have has black cake in it from last year. As days and weeks pass, I slice a sliver when I have a taste for it. This is characteristic of black cake; the process of preparing and baking it is time consuming, and eating it is a journey of savoring and saving small pieces for the future.
Black cake is occasionally compared to British plum pudding, a dark confection also comprised of sugar and spices. Considering the invasive history of the British in the West Indies and the production of rum in Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas, the influence is likely but what manifests as black cake today is simply different, depending on the baker and their homeland island. The real history is passed down and perfected generationally from great-grandmothers to grandmothers to mothers to children.
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: