Several years ago, re-reading Laurie Colwin's "Home Cooking," I was taken with her description of black cake. It's a Caribbean dessert, traditionally used at times of festivities, a higher form of fruitcake steeped in rum and other ethanol-type liquids. So I tried it. The idea was good, but her relatively vague recipe, which she admitted she hadn't actually made, just obtained from her daughter's baby sitter, just didn't hold together, literally, for me. (Other people, apparently, have done better with it.) But the idea still held promise. I am not one of those people whose idea of a Christmas cake is glaceed cherries and citron. No, indeedy. I have two fruitcake recipes, one dark and the other light, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly, as it were, and both are tasty, so it wasn't as though I actually needed another one, but it nagged at me. Two years ago, I read Nigella Lawson's discussion of Colwin's cake and her take on the recipe. And last year I came across another recipe, and succumbed to it. I did a little tinkering, using what I had on hand and what I could easily find. And I was blown away when I finally tasted it. Moist and dark and mysterious, fruit and spice and booze. I cannot imagine a kid liking it, as laced with liquor as it is, but it is so worth the effort. (And the cost; this is not an inexpensive project.)
So it's November. I've chopped up the fruit and set it to marinating. It should sit for at least a week. Nigella says one year she began the marinating a month early, and when the time came to bake, she was so tired, she didn't make the cake. It sat 13 months in the liquid and she used it the next year, and it was fine. I don't think it's fair to drop a recipe like this on, say, December 15. So start now.
I've done some subbing from that recipe. The orange peel was awful-smelling and I pitched it, substituting some candied dried pineapple I had on hand. And glad I did, too; the occasional hit of pineapple is fun. I didn't have enough rum so I finished off the amount with some Madeira I had on hand. If you need to substitute in the fruit, nuts, or liquor, just figure on an equal volume. As to chopping: Measure first, then chop. (You know you can always tell by how it's listed - “1 cup nuts, finely chopped” means measure, then chop: “1 cup chopped nuts” means chop before measuring, right?) I use the processor for chopping the almonds, but I'm not crazy about that; it's easy to end up with half ground to flour and another half ranging from too-large-to-barely-nicked. For the rest, I just put on some cooking music and get cracking with a chef's knife and my cutting board, cutting them medium-coarse to just plain medium. I like much of the fruit to just sort of meld into the cake.
The ingredient that puzzles most people is the burnt sugar. There are ways to make it yourself if you look on the internet, but it's easier to buy it. I found it at Global Foods on Kirkwood Road, where it's with the Caribbean foods, a dark brown liquid in a bottle. I also buy many of the fruits there, finding them less expensive and properly fresh.
PANS: I use two loaf pans that measure 8 ½ by 4 ½ inches at the bottom, and 3 inches high. Following Nigella's advice and drawing on my own experiences, I lined each pan with two pieces of paper. I was out of parchment, so I used clean, unprinted grocery bags, cut the strips roughly to size, one to go longways in the pan the other sideways. I made sure I had some overlap at the corners, which was fine. Fortunately, the paper went above the sides of the pan. That turned out to be a good thing, as the batter also rose above the sides. The cakes also are often made in round cake pans; this volume of batter could go into a 9- or 10-inch round pan that's 2 inches tall, and would bake for less time. But I'd still line the pans on the sides and bottom, especially if I were using a springform pan.
UPDATE: So this year, I just made the cake again (it's now the end of November) and there was, somehow, way too much batter for those two pans. So I filled the two I had, popped them in the oven, and got a third, smaller loaf pan that is 6 1/2 inches by 2 3/4 inches. I whacked out a brown paper liner for it and put the rest of the batter in it. (It fit perfectly.) It took an hour and 45 minutes to test done; the other two ran about 2 hours 15 minutes.
I greased the pans in case there was any leakage and then the papers, using Pam spray.
FOR THE FRUIT:
1 3/4 C. almonds, chopped
1 3/4 c. dried cherries, chopped
1 3/4 c. pitted prunes, chopped
1 3/4 c. raisins, chopped
3/4 c. dried pineapple, chopped
1 c. currants, chopped a little (they're small)
3/4 c. dried cranberries, chopped
1 1/2 c. Port
1/2 c. Madeira (may substitute more port)
1 c. dark rum
Combine nuts, fruit, and liquids in a container that holds at least 3 quarts and has a sealable lid. Cover and store in a cool dark place for at least a week.
FOR THE CAKE:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. baking powder
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
4 sticks (1 lb.) butter, room temperature
2 1/4 c. packed light brown sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 c. burnt sugar
Place an oven in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cut lining papers for cake pans, allowing for an overlap at the corners and extending an inch or so above the tops. Grease the pans, insert the lining papers, creasing them so they fit in, and grease the papers.
In a large bowl (that isn't the bowl you're going to mix the cake itself in) whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and spices. In the bowl of the mixer, place the butter and sugar, and beat on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides as necessary, and when the mixture is fluffy, scrape down the sides completely, stopping the machine. Return to medium speed and add the eggs, one at a time, beating each one in completely before adding the next. Add the vanilla and drop the speed to low.
Add the flour, the fruit-nut mixture and any remaining liquid and the burnt sugar, and mix just until combined. (I ended up using a large spatula to get everything nicely moistened rather than beating it to death in the ol' KitchenAid.)
Divide between the prepared pans, bang each pan on the counter a couple of times to settle the batter in, and place in oven.
Bake for about 2 hours, until a cake tester comes out clean from the middle. The cake will be very moist.
Allow to cool in the pans for 30 minutes or so, and then remove from the pans and finish cooling on the rack.
When cool, gently peel paper off cake. Brush cake with a little more rum and place in an airtight plastic bag. Can be eaten soon, or left to age up to 2 months.
Makes 2 cakes, each giving about 10-12 slices. (Or more: see added notes above.)
Not a handsome cake, although I can see setting it ablaze a la Christmas pudding and bearing it in to the assemblage with a sprig of holly atop it.