Thursday, September 3, 2009

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.

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