Patiently Wrought in Rum and Tradition, Black Cake Is a Triumph

Black cake, a West Indian holiday baking tradition, demands more because it delivers more.

Jamaican Black Cake
Photo: Photo by Jennifer Causey / Food Styling by Ali Ramee / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

Every December, the chorus from most every Caribbean native, descendant, expatriate, and even ardent tourist is unified and resonant: "There is no Christmas without black cake." Such is the weight of this cake that its presence on the holiday spread is an indicator of the success of one's end-of-year celebrations. Fully understanding such iconography requires a grasp of black cake's origin, a respect for its earned status, and the enterprise to make it yourself.

During the 1700s, British presence in the Caribbean was anchored by the economic priority of sugar (which was powered, of course, by slave labor). The abolition of slavery in the 1830s marked an exodus of colonial powers, but the Brits inadvertently left some souvenirs and plum pudding was one of them. Over time, plum pudding received a spicier, more robust facelift: Thanks to the ingenuity of island folk who harnessed the flavorful impact of home-grown ingredients, plum pudding was reborn as a cake that reflected their land and its inherent bounty. And so, black cake was born. It is a delicious work of syncretism, a combination of opposites, and for some an earnest gesture of generosity.

As a child growing up in Trinidad & Tobago, I many times witnessed the months-long process of making black cake. Around late September — right after hurricane season ended — my mother started assembling the core ingredients: raisins, currants, prunes, cherries, white rum and cherry brandy. The dried, shriveled fruits were drowned in a boozy bath of rum and brandy, and as the weeks went by, the saturated fruits burgeoned into juicy and plump orbs after absorbing much of the alcohol. Frequently, throughout the months, I noticed my mother "topping-up" the fruit with more liquor. By the week of Christmas, this drunken fruit mixture was pulverized into a smooth paste; a mixture that forms the base of black cake and imparts a luxuriously moist texture as well as dark earthen color to the cake. As Christmas approaches, there is a palpable expectation for the holiday, but there's greater excitement for the black cake.

Nowadays, I'm married to a man who is Jamaican born and bred—and he has his own well-defined opinions about the cake. The black cake of his youth contained sweeter elements, like rosewater and almonds, ingredients my mother — and most Trinidadians for that matter — seldom utilized. However, despite the variance in the ingredient list, by and large, the look and even the taste of black cake, from Jamaica and isles beyond, always seem to mysteriously lie on the same plane.

The adaptations rendered by personal preference and ingredient availability do not diminish the appeal or power of black cake in any significant way. For instance, in the kosher Manischewitz grape wine, I've found a strong substitute for the fuchsia-hued House of Angostura cherry brandy to which I was accustomed. My recipe for Jamaican black cake calls for almonds, ground allspice, and molasses, foundational ingredients for my mother-in-law that I wouldn't typically use if not for the strong and successful lobbying by her son. For years I'd watch my mother cautiously making browning or burnt sugar essence, the final ingredient blended into the cake batter, which adds a deeper blacker hue. Using molasses to inject a similar color was never on my radar, until it was. The browning and/or molasses comparison underscored that in black cake there can be great unity in diversity.

The inclusion of familiar ingredients used in a very unfamiliar way — in a cake I've only known through my mother's making — jangled my understanding of what black cake truly is. And that was revelatory. I came to appreciate the value in the variance. The vibrant pockets of immigrant West Indian communities, from Brooklyn, New York to Birmingham, London, are engaged in the same process of supplanting some elements of the cake to befit their locale and life outside of the Caribbean. Yet, with all of the tweaks and turns, additions and subtractions, the soul of black cake remains untouched. The cake is a beloved Caribbean tradition even if its making carries some incongruence. And this is the hidden magic that black cake embodies; it is more of a unifier than a divider. It's a cake that calls the scattered to gather—wherever they are—and bake in the dignity of shared memories that crosses borders and churns through time.

But unity does not come cheap. Making this cake will easily set you back forty to fifty dollars, a staggering price considering most people can make a decent holiday cake with items already stocked at home. For those for whom black cake is inextricably linked to Christmas, the cost is worth it, especially if the cake is gifted, which it frequently is. My husband remembers "We gave black cake away as presents to family members and close friends. 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." Beyond the spices and rum, brandy and fruit, the most salient ingredients in black cake are sacrifice and patience. And perhaps that's why it makes such a meaningful gift unlike anything that can be bought. To receive black cake is to hold in your hands a very tangible expression of someone's heart and hard work. And while there are other cakes and confections that confer similar sentiment, black cake's bearing is so affecting that one can easily measure the love, one boozy slice at a time.

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