Sometime before Christmas I got a strong hankering for homemade fruit cake, more specifically black cake. My father’s father used to make it every June or July, basting it regularly with West Indian rum, then serving it to the privileged few in through fall and winter. Grandpa was an incredible cook and baker and I regret that we never banged around the kitchen together. My 20’s were, shall we say, sketchy? I entertained quite a bit but, being young and foolish, I allowed myself to get crazy about details and elaborate menus. I hadn’t moved back home to Fort Lauderdale when he passed away. And although I have his massive recipe collection, I don’t have his recipe for black cake or fruit cake but, again, I know he loved West Indian rums so as I did my recipe research and development I kept that in mind. Grandpa traveled often to Saint Kitts, where he had family, and also the Lesser Antilles. He always brought back beautiful bottles of rum and brandy, the labels decorated sometimes by hand, and small, mysterious bottles of bitters. His crystal decanters were typically filled 1/3 and, in late afternoon when the sun shone in, they cast the most magical rainbows across his floors and walls. Grandpa had a full closet in his house that was his bar. That bar was something else! Angostura bitters, vermouth, rum, brandy, gin, vodka, scotch, bourbon. Glasses varying in size, hand etched with his monogram, were kept on a shelf in the closet. And guess what sat next to those glasses? Yup. All those beautiful black cakes and fruit cakes sitting in fine rum through summer and fall just waiting to be served. Through the year Grandpa would refresh each cake regularly with a quick splash of rum or brandy. He kept them neatly stacked on a shelf in his bar and through the year would regularly share a slice or two with family and friends. His apartment was on the water and since he was less than a half mile from our house we visited often.
He was a gentleman’s gentleman, from the way he dressed to how his flat was furnished. Floor to ceiling book cases overflowed with excellent collections of the classics which gave him great enjoyment, some volumes so rare they were donated and exhibited at our main library. His father, also a bibliophile, had been a book publisher and Grandpa had a deep affection for the bindings, the quality of paper and the worlds those written tomes could take you. He loved raw oysters and sweetbreads, cold, rare roast beef and all manner of fowl. Nothing made him happier than throwing his big, wooden crab traps off the dock, while in linen Bermuda shorts, and watching the rectangular crates sink to the murky canal floor anticipating the sweet seafood pleasure to come. He surrounded himself with family pieces; silver was always polished, windows open at the ready for gentle, salt breezes and a homemade 4-layer, dark chocolate cake, iced and ready for company was always waiting in his refrigerator. 5 o’clock found him without fail in one of his club chairs, cocktail made, reading the newspaper. He had a passion for recipes from India, Britain and the islands, handsome full brogue Oxford dress shoes and rich but worn Persian rugs. Grandpa kept his knives frighteningly sharp and his ice bucket fresh and full. The downside was he could have a biting tongue. When my older sister, Cynthia, and I were much younger, maybe eight and six, we were left alone in the living room of his apartment while the grownups were having drinks on the porch. I was fascinated with learning cursive and, of course, model student Cynthia had already perfected her penmanship. Using our index fingers we idly traced our names on an elaborate silver tray that happened to be covered with dust. Try as I might, I just could not figure out how to connect the “c” in my name with the following letter “i”. The next day, and I don’t recall if the tirade took place at our house or his, however, I DO quite clearly remember Grandpa bending down over Cynthia and me and with his booming, deep voice bellowing two inches from our white-with-fear faces, “…WHO DO YOU THINK I AM?? YOUR SERVANT?? YOUR LACKEY??” We stood in frozen terror and I remember thinking, “What’s a lackey?”. Mama came to our defense explaining we had not meant to insult him and I believe she ended up receiving the verbal brunt of his fury. He was highly opinionated and pretty fearless. Not only did he love me but he liked me so I moved about him with ease and affection. I am of the opinion he would have highly approved of this cake, nibbling on a sliver every day until gone to begin again the gathering of dried fruits and spirits.
This cake is nothing like the fruit cakes of old that were baked with Day-Glo candied fruits from the grocery store and best used as door stops. No. This cake is tender, and rich and almost chocolaty in flavor. I’m crazy about it, can’t keep my hands off it and, as I lean up against my kitchen counter and taste that first morsel redolent with the warm, mysterious flavors of candied orange peel, burnt sugar or browning, dark rum and port, well, I almost feel like a pirate in the West Indies.
Jamaican Black Cake
My recipe is based on Chowhound’s “Caribbean Black Fruitcake” and, really, the only major difference is that I ground up all but one cup of the soaked fruit and nuts in the food processor to a slightly chunky paste. The cake is simple to assemble, however a week or two is needed for all the fruits to macerate properly so take that into consideration. The burnt sugar syrup called for in the recipe is also known as “Browning” and nothing can replace the flavor. It can be found at Publix on the “International” aisle with all island products. The label has a little fruitcake printed on it. I made my own candied orange peel back in December but if you’re not up for that, make certain you buy a good quality candied peel at, for instance, Williams Sonoma. Because of the large quantity of alcohol used to soak the fruit there is no need for additional soaking, although I did brush a bit of rum on top, once daily for two or three days, to keep the crown of the cake tender. And once the cake cools after taking it out of the oven it can be eaten; there’s no need to age it, however if does keep extremely well for up to two months, tightly wrapped in a cool, dark place…(my mouth?) Do not refrigerate it as the accumulating moisture will change the texture.
For the fruit:
- 2 cups whole raw almonds, coarsely chopped
- 2 cups prunes, coarsely chopped
- 2 cups dried cherries, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup raisins, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup currants
- 1 3/4 cups fine dark rum
- 1 1/2 cups ruby port, tawny port is okay but ruby is sweeter
- Combine all the above ingredients in a large container with a tight-fitting lid and mix well. Cover tightly and set aside in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Shake it every so often to mix the rum and port with the fruit and nuts.
For the cake:
- 1 pound unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
- 6 large eggs, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 3/4 teaspoon ground clove
- 3/4 cup burnt sugar syrup or browning
- 2-3 tablespoons dark rum for brushing on baked cakes
- Pre-heat oven to 300° and slide rack into the middle.
- Place all the macerated fruit and nuts except one cup in food processor including all the liquid. Pulse until the fruit and nuts are a chunky paste; the texture of cooked oatmeal. Set aside.
- Butter or cover with non-sticking cooking spray two 9×5 inch loaf pans. Cover the bottom of each with parchment paper, butter or spray paper and set pans aside.
- In a standup mixture place butter and sugar and using the paddle attachment beat on medium for 3-4 minutes or until fluffy and pale yellow.
- While the butter and sugar are mixing, place flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves in a bowl and whisk to break up all lumps and combine well. Set aside.
- When butter and sugar are well beaten, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add one egg at a time beating well after each addition.
- Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the vanilla and turn the mixer to low-speed.
- Add ground up fruit mixture as well as the burnt sugar syrup and mix until combined.
- Take the bowl out of the stand-up mixer and using a large spoon or spatula fold the flour mixture in until just combined.
- Divide evenly between the two prepared pans and bake for 2 hours or until cake tester comes out clean. The cakes will still be very moist.
- Cool 30 minutes in the pans on a wire rack. Turn cakes out onto the rack and brush with a little dark rum.
- Allow to cool completely before slicing or storing.