Friday, September 4, 2009

Advice on Black Cake, and a Poem about it

Googling around the internet found much advice about making the famous Black Cake. Apparently Nigella Lawson put it in one of her cookbooks. Madeira can be substituted for the Manischewitz, so I guess my Gewurztraminer will be fine. There are several approaches to the fruit, and I am considering adding a bit of preserved ginger to my macaw pot. I fear I may have used too little alcoholic liquid; that's another thing I'll need to research more.

Most interesting, though, was a blog about Emily Dickinson, who it seems was a great baker and was famous for her Black Cake. A professor at UC Davis wrote this poem about it:

by Sandra M. Gilbert

Black cake, black Uncle Emily cake,
I tunnel among your grains of darkness
fierce as a mouse: your riches
are all my purpose, your currants and death's eye raisins
wrinkling and thickening blackness,
and the single almond of light she buried
somewhere under layers of shadow . . .

One day I too will be Uncle Sandra:
iambic and terse. I'll hobble the tough sidewalks,
the alleys that moan go on, go on.
O when I reach those late-night streets,
when acorns and twigs
litter my path like sentences
the oaks no longer choose to say,

I want that cake in my wallet.
I want to nibble as I hobble.
I want to smile and nibble
that infinite black cake,
                       and lean
on Uncle Emily's salt-white
ice-bright sugar cane.

~ from Kissing the Bread: New and Selected Poems, 1969-1999 (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2001

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Black Cake: Muck in a Macaw

Laurie says to chop the fruit "extra, extra fine" so I ran it through the Cuisinart so that it is the consistency of hummus or peanut butter. I was 3 oz. short of raisins and another 3 oz. short of currants, so I put in a couple of extra prunes. So now there are both prunes and plums in there. I used Navarro Vineyards Sweet Last Harvest Gewurztraminer, a 375 ml. split, instead of the "bottle of Passover wine".

Laurie says to put it in a large bowl or crock. I couldn't find an empty glass jar that was big enough to hold all this, and at the same time had a top, so I decided to use the Macaw cookie jar.

Once the fruit and the wine were in there, I could add about 3/4 pint of Myers's dark rum, but I'm hoping it will take more after the next few weeks of soaking. the muck tastes pretty good, but if it were up to me I'd add more glace cherries. I am very fond of glace cherries, much more so than prunes, plums or raisins.

Here's the recipe as I made it:

13 oz. raisins
3 oz. dried prunes
13 oz. dried currants
16 oz. dried plums
16 oz. glace cherries
12 oz. candied orange peel

375 ml. sweet Gewurztraminer wine
12 oz. dark rum

(The photo makes it look like chili!)

Jeremy wants to know when we can eat this cake, and is disappointed that I say it will probably be a month before it is well marinated, baked and frosted. We shall see. And I'm sure we will take little tastes!

The Black Cake Saga: The Beginning

It's been at least 15 years since I first read Laurie Colwin's description of Black Cake, a frosted fruitcake from the West Indies that Colwin wrote up in her readable cookbook, "Home Cooking."

Colwin talks about how it is nothing like our idea of holiday fruitcake; she says "there is fruitcake, and there is Black Cake, which is to fruitcake what the Brahms piano quartets are to Muzak." I don't need to get out my iPod to make that comparison.

I tried making the black cake at some point in the distant past, to, I remember, pretty miserable results. I did a lot of substitutions, based on the dried fruit I had on hand, and the result was so sad that I added chocolate to the second batch of batter thinking that chocolate makes anything taste fine. The chocolate one was edible but not very good.

Laurie Colwin admits that she never made this cake, but loved it when her West Indian nanny made it. Presumably Alfred A. Knopf and Harper-Collins tested the recipe before publishing the book.

It's the beginning of what I think of as the cooking season. I made my first batch of peach jam a few weeks ago, and the guavas are ready for the jelly brigade around the end of September. Then it is time for ghost cookies and apple pies and Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, I am going to try again to make the Black Cake, for the first cold evenings or the last sunset at the beach, and if it's edible, I'll send one to my son Kevin to share with his college pals.

Perhaps by documenting the process I'll be less likely to cut corners or make bizarre substitutions. My notes from my past attempt say that I used prunes, yellow raisins, mango, cranberries, rum, vanilla syrup, and caramel syrup. Laurie Colwin's recipe calls for raisins, prunes, currants, glace cherries, and mixed peel, along with Passover wine and rum.

I will follow Colwin's amounts, using dried pitted plums from the Iranian grocery store (aren't dried plums the same as prunes?), currants, raisins, glace cherries, and orange peel. The currants and raisins I got at my local Whole Foods market. I had to look in three places and ask two people before I found the currants. I don't think we grow many currants in the U.S., and I'm not really sure what a currant is...they seem like a small raisin and are usually in scones. I had to mail-order the glace cherries and peel (I think it is all orange peel) from a place I found on the Internet called The Barry Farm.

Last time I made this, there was WAY too much liquid with the rum and the wine (if I even used the wine; I can't tell from my notes.) Laurie says to use "one bottle each", so this time I will use a half-bottle of a dessert wine that came with my twice-annual offering from Navarro Vineyards, and a pint of Meyer's Dark Rum. We'll see what happens.