Caribbean

A Spiced Caribbean Black Cake for Christmas, Aged in Rum & Memory

Recreating my mother's recipe in a new home.

Photo by Ty Mecham

“You should have started months ago. You remember. This is a cake that requires your attention, your respect and, most importantly, your time.”

These were my mother’s parting words to me when I told her of my attempt to make the most ubiquitous holiday dessert throughout the English-speaking Caribbean: black cake.

My mother’s chide wasn’t so much an “I told you so,” but more of a “you know better.” She was right. I knew better. After all, I’d spent the better part of my childhood in Trinidad and Tobago watching her prepare this cake the moment hurricane season ended, usually around early October.

It was already December. But I was a heady newlywed and wanted my first Christmas with my husband to be memorable. I reasoned, what better way to mark the year than to give my Jamaican husband, Joseph, a baked gesture symbolic of our shared history as West Indian immigrants? Black cake was the clear choice; however, the process of making it was a little more daunting.

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“You have inspired me to return to baking black cake at Christmas. I am from Jamaica's south coast and we use white rum and port for soaking the fruits. It is good to know that Manischewitz is a worthy substitute. I will also try with Cherry Brandy. I guess in my family we were more cavalier about length of "fruit-soaking time". If we managed to get started a couple weeks before December hit we'd feel we were indeed doing well. Some people who didn't do it until about a week before they started baking would actually very gently heat the mixture before letting it sit for a week. Thanks for the nostalgic walk:)”
— Agatha B.
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In the Caribbean, there is nothing else quite akin to black cake. It’s a cake that beats with a rhythm that only the islands could produce. All the elements that the process of baking has ever prized—patience, decadence, and intrigue—are set within black cake’s dark, rich, and historic interior.

Months before Dec. 25, hundreds of thousands of home cooks throughout the Caribbean combine pounds of raisins, dried cherries, currants, and prunes, and subsequently drown them in a boozy bath of local rum and fruit-forward brandy. This dried fruit—saturated in liquor—is then pulverized to a smooth paste that gives black cake its remarkably moist texture. This ground fruit also rids the cake of the dense, stone-like chunks that afflict many versions of fruit cake. The color (from which its name derives) is attributed to the addition of burnt sugar essence, or browning, which is the last ingredient added to the batter. And while there are myriad tweaks and tricks to this recipe, black cake will always retain its relevancy from the backwaters of Caribbean history.

The cake is a descendant of colonial British plum pudding. The ingredients—brown sugar, rum, and browning—are culinary guideposts reminiscent of an age when the economic priority of sugar, powered by the ills of slavery, anchored British interest in the West Indies. As such this cake embodies two extremes: labor and luxury. For Joseph and me, battling the pangs of homesickness and making this cake was a connection to the warmth of the Caribbean’s care-free vibes—especially during the dead of an American winter.

Sourcing the dried fruit was simple. Sourcing the cherry brandy, on the other hand, required some diligence; ultimately, I found a capable substitute in the kosher grape wine, Manischewitz. By the time I had combined the two, my husband knew what was happening: It’s impossible to mask the aroma of dried fruit baptized in booze. For a couple days, Joseph tiptoed around the topic of black cake, until one day, when he asked very nonchalantly, “What’s on the Christmas dessert menu?” I knew what he was getting at. I detected a distinct note of concern in his strong, sing-song voice. He was gentle enough to spare the judgment that I was woefully late to the black cake game.

“Growing up, black cake was the biggest part of Christmas,” he said, with a faraway smile. “We gave it away as presents to close friends and family members. I remember my parents talking about how much all the rum, fruit, and ingredients cost, so I knew that to receive one as a gift truly meant something.” And with his words, I knew that my undertaking would be worth it.

Joseph went on to tell me of the massive, airtight, covered blue water bucket his family used to store and soak the dried-fruits drenched in alcohol, because no kitchen bowl was ever ample enough. His eyes widened as I watched his childhood memories of making black cake come to life through his storytelling.

But the biggest surprise and shock to my system was my husband’s quip, which foreshadowed what I thought would be my sure failure. And for any Caribbean native who has ever made this cake: to fail at black cake was to fail at Christmas.

It’s a cake that beats with a rhythm that only the islands could produce. All the elements that the process of baking has ever prized—patience, decadence, and intrigue—are set within black cake’s dark, rich, and historic interior.

“You know, for some Caribbean women, the real measure of Christmas is how long they’ve been soaking their fruit,” he said with ease.

Immediately, I looked at my pitiable four-quart Pyrex bowl that brimmed with one-week-old Bacardi white rum, Manischewitz, and dried fruit with chaos. Clearing my voice and regaining mental composure, I asked how long his family typically soaked their fruits.

“Honestly, mum had that big blue water bucket for years with fruits soaking up all the goodness,” he recalled. “She’d top it up with Appleton rum and stir it around every so often. I think the age of the fruits is what made our Black Cake so good.”

His answer was like taking a bullet.

At this point, I was searching on Etsy for “three-year-old alcohol-soaked fruit for black cake.” My search was a dud. I’d hit Caribbean Christmas rock bottom.

With a soccer ball under his arm, Joseph gave me a quick kiss on the forehead and headed out for his weekly pickup game.

The second the door turned, I felt near-lethal levels of regret rise within me. I knew there was no way my last-minute cake with non-Jamaican rum could ever compare to his mother’s. My regret grew into low-grade rage, which then settled into discouragement. And so, I escaped. I poured myself a glass of red wine and took a nap. When I awoke, I did the only thing I knew to do when I was in trouble: call home and ask for help. Turns out, even in my late twenties, married with a mortgage, I still had a sizeable part of teenage girl buried deep within.

My mom answered and heard the undue desperation in my voice. And she met me with life-giving, Christmas-cake saving advice.

“Add some Angostura bitters to your fruit mix, along with some mixed citrus peel,” Mum said. “And keep your fruit-mixture room temperature with a tight-fitting lid.” The steadiness in her voice cut the urgency in mine. “Don’t worry, dear. You were at my side, year after year making this cake. It will come back to you.”

I thanked my mother and followed her instructions. Yet still, I was anxious and consistently doubted my experience, even though I’ve been a black cake onlooker for well over a decade.

In the weeks that followed, I gained my footing. Five days before Christmas, I began the process of baking the cake. I took off work that day and by mid-morning I’d gathered all of my utensils. I uncovered the glass bowl containing my soaked-fruit and was impressed by the aromas reminiscent of my childhood Christmas on the island. Working in small batches —just as my mother did, and her mother before her—I pulverized the fruits. Making the browning came next, followed by the creaming of soft butter with dark brown sugar. With each passing step, I gained confidence that I could actually pull this off. Before I knew it, I was sliding two round cake pans into the oven.

Throughout the entire process, I waited for the mistake, the misstep, or the inevitable jinx that would’ve made the whole endeavor a hapless undertaking. But it never came. Not because I’m a skilled baker, but because of the power of my childhood memories that carried me along. No longer an onlooker, I was now a participant and witness to the intergenerational transmission of this key part of our Caribbean heritage.

When I pulled the black cakes out of the oven—moist and shamelessly decadent—I also extracted the knowledge that this cake was never meant to be exactly like my mother’s or my mother-in-law’s, because in this cake I’d started a new tradition, Manischewitz wine and all.

“This looks just like my mom’s, but there’s something different in the taste,” Joseph said, taking another bite. “A good kind of different.”

Is there a holiday recipe you'll be recreating for the first time this year? Let us know in the comments below.

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18 Comments

Tricia S. June 20, 2019
This cake can be a very expensive and time consuming cake. Some ingredients can be omitted based on product sourcing or personal preference. Mixed peels and cherries can be omitted if you do not like them. Angostura bitters can be omitted or use a grated lime rind. As for shredding time: 1) Boil the dried fruits in the alcohol for few minutes and let soak for a 2-3 days 2) Bake in a bundt or mini bundt pans.
Also, port wine is an alternative to the red label wine that Jamaicans use.
Use the rum sparingly to moisten the cake post baking. My mom prefers to use the port wine with a dash of rum as a heavy hand with the rum can make the cake bitter.
A tsp of mixed spice may be used in addition to the spices already stated (some redundancy with some of the spices)
The browning can be ordered online or try a local Caribbean grocery store if you live close to one
Do not cover the cake or soaking fruits with directly with foil. Some chemical reaction occurs and eats away at the foil, creating little holes.
 
Bella95 February 28, 2019
Not sure why this has come up in my feed in February but its a good reminder to start soaking my fruit. Had never heard of it until a fellow Kiwi friend made one as her wedding cake. Not a traditional usage l'm sure but it was amazing. Tried making one a couple of Christmasses ago. I was late starting so l cheated a bit by very gently heating the fruit and alcohol to about body temperature before leaving it to soak. I think l ended up a little bit drunk just from tasting the batter so, clearly it didn't effect the alcohol content. I have NO idea what one made by an actual Jamaican would be like but, l liked mine so much l actually hid some just for myself.
 
Kwesi December 26, 2018
Nice read. Frankly every Jamaican knows Christmas is not complete without complete the Black Cake or Fruit cake as we call it in Jamaica. Yes the author was late with her preparations. The earlier the better. The wine to be used is red label wine, something rare these days. But I can understand using what you have especially living overseas. Happy all ended well as nothing says Christmas after the big meal than a slice of fruit cake and a tall glass of sorrel to sit it down. Yum
 
Thea M. December 23, 2018
We’re Cuban, and although this was not part of the tradition passed from my Cuban relatives, this was a cake my mother made throughout my childhood. She would roll marzipan and cover it in the almond paste like fondant. We loved how the almond cut the sweetness. Happy memories!
 
Rita M. December 24, 2018
This cake not only takes diligence making but bravery to call it done. The cake is so moist that a prick with a toothpick is not a good thing for testing. Cook too far and over $100 worth of ingredients goes down the drain. Friends would ask me for a slice for a Christmas gift. I always started on November 1st, All Saints Day. It is the cake of dreams.
 
Jim C. June 10, 2019
Awesome sounding treat. How long to bake & what temperature do you suggest? Thank you in advance for your thoughtful help. Jim..
 
Joseph W. December 21, 2018
Excellent article Brigid! Loved reading all the comments from fellow Black Cake lovers and enthusiasts. Can't wait to a slice of this and some white rum spiked Sorrel :)
 
charlotte December 20, 2018
I'm so happy to see this. I have friends from Trinidad&Tobago, Gianna, Jamaica and Barbados. They all talk about Black Cake but no one has a recipe. I scoured the Web a few years ago in search of a recipe, not really knowing if I'd found a good one. I made one that tasted flat to me. Everyone was polite and said it was delicious. I'm willing to buy the ingredients and do the work, but only if I know it will turn out. I'll be making this next year. Thank you so much for posting this🍷
 
Agatha B. December 20, 2018
I just so enjoyed reading about a tradition that I have not kept up. You have inspired me to return to baking black cake at Christmas. I am from Jamaica's south coast and we use white rum and port for soaking the fruits. It is good to know that Manischewitz is a worthy substitute. I will also try with Cherry Brandy. I guess in my family we were more cavalier about length of "fruit-soaking time". If we managed to get started a couple weeks before December hit we'd feel we were indeed doing well. Some people who didn't do it until about a week before they started baking would actually very gently heat the mixture before letting it sit for a week.
Thanks for the nostalgic walk:)
 
Mrs B. December 19, 2018
I also make black cakes, using a recipe published by the great NY Times writer, Mimi Sheraton, about 30 year ago. I chop and soak the fruit in late November, pack quart jars with it, and then pour dark rum over to cover. Then I let it sit for a full year before baking. I bake the cake in largish mini-loaves, which I wrap in butter muslin soaked in dark rum, and then give as gifts. It's the best holiday cake, ever. I mean that. A tip: refrigerate the cakes for neat, clean slicing.
 
Eric K. December 19, 2018
Oh, that's a great tip.
 
charlotte December 20, 2018
Do you let the fruit and rum sit at room temperature or in the fridge?
 
Agatha B. December 20, 2018
I have - kept mine at room temperature, usually at the back of a cupboard where it is nice and dark and cool:)
 
charlotte December 21, 2018
Thank you. That's what I'll do🍷
 
Mrs B. December 21, 2018
Charlotte, I keep those jars all year on a dark pantry shelf, turning them over a few times every month or so to distribute the soaking liquid. Incidentally I do the same thing with the fruit and peel for my steamed Christmas pudding. Over the Thanksgiving weekend I measure and mix the dry ingredients for both, and then make the cakes and pudding around December 1. While the cakes are baking and the pudding is steaming, I chop the fruit and start it soaking for the next year. Then - using the same cutting board and knife - I cut the fruit for the panforte di Siena and panpepato I’ll bake a few days after that.
 
charlotte December 22, 2018
Thank you so much, Ms B. I'd better get busy right now for next year. Merry Christmas!🍷
 
Mrs B. December 26, 2018
Charlotte, cakes like these have the added advantage of being the ultimate make-ahead dessert. Completed in early December using well soaked fruit, and wrapped in butter muslin generously soaked in dark rum, the cakes provide the perfect dessert for your holiday meal -with no effort in the busiest weeks and days preceding Christmas.
 
Winifred R. December 19, 2018
Big cheers for you and your black cakes! Not being Caribbean I've only read about them rather than having tasted one, so I can only imagine how delicious they are. I hope you and your husband have the most wonderful holiday, as does the rest of your family.