Monday, December 13, 2010

Trinidad Black Cake: One of the Good Results

For one whole year I have been looking forward to the making and the sharing of fruitcake. I've been pondering fruity combinations, deciding whether or not to increase the spice or the almond or both, and comparing recipes, techniques, and sources. In short, I've been a little obsessed.

Last Christmas I had my first taste of fruitcake. Before then I didn't realize people actually ate it. I thought fruitcake was one of those culinary oddities, a bit of bygone history that became a joke as soon as it was created--because no one really liked it. I thought fruitcake was the food that one's overly-perfumed Aunt Mildred would bake in quantity at Christmastime, giving relatives just one more reason to avoid her during the holidays.

But then I read an article, in this magazine with this recipe, and suddenly fruitcake sounded exciting. It was, maybe, one of the good results of colonialism. It was one of those British traditions my California culture missed out on.

That year I tasted a bit of a Canadian friend's one year old cake, complete with those fluorescent green cherries on the same Non-Foods list as Dream Whip. And you know what? I liked it. It was subtle. Dense. Dark. Spiced and vaguely reminiscent of brandy. It convinced me. Fruitcake. There was a reason--aside from the booze--why the tradition has lasted. I wasn't necessarily ready to go out and buy those funky glow-in-the-dark candied things, but I was definitely game for learning more about it.

Last year was epic. I ended up spending copious amounts of time searching the nether-regions of the web, getting attached to the romantic idea of giving away blocks of cake as presents, and making, in the end, four huge fruitcakes and one modest bowl of plum pudding. I went through four bottles of booze, seven pounds of dried fruit, more time and money than I every thought I could expend on holiday baking, and when I couldn't find affordable, corn-syrup-free candied citron, I made my own.

This year is a little different. I had leftover everything and cut the recipes down (to accommodate my loss of Canadian fruitcake enthusiasts) so I haven't broken the bank yet, and though I have spent a comparable amount of time daydreaming about the possibilities this cake provides, I think my obsessed self is heading toward a more level-headed fruitcake relationship. Maybe.

Today, the fruitcake I have to share with you is a very particular fruitcake. This is Trinidad Black Cake, the Caribbean version of the fruit-packed brick the Romans created and the British popularized. It is what I brought back from Canada, though, obviously, it isn't exactly Canadian. It is even more dark and more boozy than its European cousin, but the idea is still the same. Lots of fruit, a little flour and butter to bind, some sugar and spice, and a good bathing in liquor.

Last year I felt like a hero after finishing this cake. I made three batches of the burnt sugar (a key Caribbean ingredient my California cooking experience did not include) before I actually had something to work with. The first batch I simply bailed too soon, freaking out when the sugar solidified into sugary shrapnel instead of melting when I thought it should. The second batch was perfect, but in one klutzy moment of haste, I knocked the pot over and splattered the black, tarish glop across the wall and floor, rendering it useless and me slightly depressed. By the third attempt you'd think I would be fine and the process magic. I did get a product to use, but at a cost. The baby woke up just as the sugar began to smoke, and I ended up having to sing to him (who was crying) from the kitchen over the smoking pot of burning sugar. I hurried, I scrambled, I sang, and then, when the sugar was done and the poor kid was wailing with confusion, I ran to him. The house was so clouded and choke-y I had to open the front door and all the windows so we could breath. We lived, he settled down, and the sugar turned out, but there was an elegance and peace somehow missing that day.

This time around the scene was, and I mean this, actually peaceful. Cedar played outside with his dad while I prepped, and I got the whole well-ventilated kitchen to myself. It took all of fifteen minutes to make the sugar, and an hour or so to get the cake in the oven (did I mention I did this while on the phone). I pulled it out of the oven that night in a blissful state of awe. Sometimes, life is smooth.

This looks lighter than it should. I did not burn the sugar enough.
Be sure it is verging on black. Dark is cooking and black is done. Charred, and you've gone too far.

Anyway, if you don't like fruitcake yet, this recipe, I hope, might dispell any of the usual fruitcake aversion. It has no fluorescent fruit in it. The fruit that is included is blended which results in a more homogeneous texture. It is a smaller recipe than one might usually find, and so I have given you the permission to just try it out. Don't make four cakes to give-away. Just try it. Eat a little (a little! especially at first--the rum hits hard and fast) and let it age. If you like dark dried fruits at all, you just might end up in love with this cake. If you are among the fruitcake lovers already, maybe this can be something new to light that fire again. It sure sparked something in me.

Trinidad Black Cake (adapted from Sarina Nicole's recipe)

Like any widely popular dish, recipes for black cake abound. The variations which I find most tempting and will try in years to come have dried cherries swapped in for some of the other dark fruits, almond meal in addition to flour, cherry wine instead of cherry rum, and mixed essence in addition to the Angostura bitters. It is an issue of locating the ingredients though. I would love to hear what you try and how it turns out.

8 ounces butter
8 ounces sugar
4 eggs
zest of 2 limes
2 teaspoon almond essence
2 teaspoon vanilla
8 ounces all-purpose flour (1/2 cassava flour + 1/2 rice flour for gluten-free)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves, grated nutmeg, ground allspice
Fruit Base:
8 ounces pitted prunes
8 ounces dark raisins
8 ounces currants
8 ounces mixed candied lemon and orange peel
1/2 bottle cherry brandy or cherry rum
1/2 bottle rum
1 tbsp Angostura bitters
8 ounces brown sugar
1/4 cup boiling hot water
Have on Hand:
1/2 more bottle of rum

A Month or More Before:
Chop the dried fruit for the fruit base. Place in a large bowl or jar (I use an old, well-cleaned arichoke heart jar from Costco) and add the Angostura bitters, cherry brandy and rum. Stir to mix. Cover and leave to soak in a cool, dark spot. The longer it sits, the better it tastes. Some do this a year ahead, Sarina only calls for a week.

On the Day Of:
Blend Fruit Base:
Pour the soaked fruit and juices into a food processor and pulse until you achieve a mix of chunky bits and little bits.
Prepare Browning:
Burn sugar until coffee-colored, nearly black. It will definitely smoke. This is the most tricky for those not used to browning. Just so we're all on the same page, it should look and act like tar. Add hot water gradually when it reaches that dark color (it will splatter, be very careful). Mix well and leave to cool.

Once that is done…
Preheat oven to a low 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl, then add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Add lime rind, almond essence, and vanilla. Mix and sift together flour, baking powder, and spices in a separate medium bowl. Gradually add sifted ingredients to creamed mixture. When completely incorporated, mix in fruit puree and browning.

Pour batter into a buttered and parchment-lined 9-inch spring-form pan. It will be fairly full. Bake for about 3 hours, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out with crumbs. Once it is out of the oven, soak the top with the remaining rum. This may take some time. The top of the cake will look rather odd, pale, and you may wish to forgo the rest of the rum. But I always have been able to get all that rum in the cake. Just be patient. Leave in the pan until the next day, and up to 'A Long Time.' It only gets better with age, so wrap well with waxed paper and foil and enjoy anywhere from a week to a year after baking. Enjoy!

*If I have scared you off with the burning sugar, then please note that you can also acquire 'browning' from a West Indies grocery, though the flavor is not as lovely, so I hear.

**For a nice video, and another recipe for those who appreciate fluorescent fruit, click here.


  1. I've gotta taste it!

  2. Super yum!! We need to swap fruit cakes. Yours looks divine! Love the drama behind the burning sugar ... Happy Holidays Amanda!