Alone in the Kitchen with a Slab of Tar with Elaborate White Frosting

It’s coming on Christmas and that meant that it was finally time for me to face the boxes hidden in my basement. I had to unearth the Black Cakes I baked in early September. I have, now and then, checked on them, the little sleeping babies, since I baked them. I have taken strategic pinches off of the one that came out of its pan ugly (just like a real newborn!), and have been surprised that it didn’t taste completely vile. The flavor has evolved since September. By November, when I last checked on them, it was obvious that these were, for reals, legit fruitcakes. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste; but they were proper fruitcakes.

This week, though, I realized that I really had to get my act together in regard to frosting the cakes and making them be what they were supposed to be. Black cake is meant to be iced with royal frosting — not an item I really have down in my repertoire — and it was obvious even to me that I’d need time to have the icing dry and so on before re-packaging the cakes and delivering the ones I’m going to give away. Basically, I had to shit or get off the pot.

So the other day, after I packed my daughter off to school, I brought all the cakes upstairs and unwrapped them and set them on paper plates around the kitchen. In this process I learned something, which is that you should not let tinfoil touch the resting, mellowing, sleeping cakes. It doesn’t seem to’ve been a big serious problem, really, but a couple of the cakes were not 100% covered in wax paper when I wrapped them, and the few places where tinfoil was touching the cake, sometimes the foil stuck a little. It was easy enough to shave off the offending bits, but it’s the kind of detail that I would handle differently next time around. NOTE TO BLACK CAKE NEWBIES: Be lavish with the wax paper when initially wrapping the cakes.

Having laid out all the cakes, I then set to contemplating royal icing. I decided to turn to the old reliable Joy of Cooking.

Now: royal icing is something that involves egg white. Basically you whip egg white with confectioner’s sugar until it becomes this mass of white fluff (Marshmallow fluff, more or less, to be honest, though it sets into a dry crust, something Fluff will not ever do) and this is all well and good except that these days no one wants to hear about a thing made with raw egg. So you have to somehow cook the egg white to a safe temperature and then make the frosting. The JoC advises that you take the whites and put them in a dish with some of the sugar and microwave it in short blasts, taking its temperature now and then until it reaches 160°, which is the safe zone for eggs.

I did this. Except that I forgot to whisk in some of the sugar first. And what I wound up with was basically a little dish of cooked egg white. This was useless, so I threw it into the cats’ bowls and moved onward. (The cats were very happy.) I separated more eggs and tried again, this time deciding that the microwave could go fuck itself and that I was better off whisking the egg and some sugar in a small Dutch oven on the stove, where I could better see and control the eggs’ process. Egg white and about 1/4 cup of confectioner’s sugar into the pot; whisk in one hand; Thermapen in the other; I took my position, and kept it for about ten minutes. I had the Thermapen on most of the time once it hit about 125°, because it wasn’t clear to me if the temperature would crawl or shoot right up very suddenly. It turned out to be more of a crawl, but as soon as the egg mixture hit 160° on one side of the pan, I took it off the heat: overcooking this would mean another disaster. And I only had so many eggs. Not to mention only some much time and patience for this kind of mishegas.

I had been slowly adding sugar as I whisked, and had maybe 1 1/2 cups of sugar in the pot by the time the egg whites hit the safe zone. Feeling super-on-my-game, I transferred the white glop — perfectly white, shiny glop — into the Kitchen Aid, added more sugar, and let the whisk attachment do its thing. I let it whip for a few minutes, added a little fresh lemon juice (which I happened to have because my husband cooked fish for dinner a couple nights ago, so we had lemon slices on hand) and decided we were done.
I then spread the royal icing on the cakes as best I could, stood back and surveyed my work. “These cakes are wretched,” I said cheerfully.

I could, perhaps, be less judgmental about it. The truth is, they might be very fine fruitcakes indeed! It’s just that I am not a fan of fruitcake. And I know my frosting aesthetics are sorely lacking. So my sense of Right and Wrong in this matter is, let’s say, fundamentally awry. It is clear to me that in my heart of hearts I was hoping that in the months since I baked these cakes, they would have sat in the basement in their wax paper and tinfoil beds and morphed into sublimely fudgey chocolate cakes, and that the royal icing would be, in fact, Marshmallow Fluff. Because who wouldn’t want a dark chocolate cake frosted with Fluff?

But there it was. I had two 9″ rounds, sloppily iced, and several little rectangular slabs, not-so-badly-iced, and two little bundt cakes, thinly iced, because to do them I had to make yet another batch of royal icing and thin it thin it thin it to make something I could pour over the little bastards. It was a process to just ice the little bundt cakes, let me tell you. I mean, my husband came home from work at about six that night and found me still dealing with these cakes while making our dinner (pizza, very good, thank you for asking). The amount of labor, all told, that went into these cakes, well: to the good people of the West Indies who make these things annually, or even more often, because my understanding is that people serve these as wedding cakes, too —  my hat is off to you. All of my hats are off to you.

After dinner, my husband wanted to try some fruitcake, for dessert. I felt this was very gung-ho of him. “Me too! Me too!” my daughter said. I said, “Um, I don’t think you’ll like this very much,” I told her, but I gave her a tiny slice of the misshapen hunk of fruitcake — the one that came out of the pan badly back in September, but which I kept for testing purposes, the Ugly Cake.

The look of sadness on my daughter’s face broke my heart. “It’s not a chocolate cake,” my husband and I reminded her gently. I really thought she might cry. “Did you think it was chocolate?” my husband asked her. She nodded her head, miserable. “It’s pretty good,” my husband said happily, eating his piece. “I don’t think I’m doing this again,” I said.

“No, for the effort involved, it’s not worth doing again,” he agreed. “But it’s pretty good, I have to say.” He ate every crumb from his plate. Went and got a second little slice.

“I like the frosting,” my daughter said as gamely as she could.

I posted on Facebook that I had a number of these Black Cakes available for the taking, if anyone was interested. I thought, to be honest, that maybe — maybe — three people would express polite interest in them. To my surprise, seven people asked for cakes. I spent some time delivering them yesterday and today; the only one left is the one dibsed by a friend who’s in New Orleans for the holiday. She will gets hers in January. It’s quite amazing to me that people wanted these cakes, which I find so, well, unappealing. But I guess it takes all kinds. There are people out there who love lemon curd, and marzipan, and candied orange peel, too! It’s shocking. But it’s true.

It now falls to me to design and prepare a Christmas dinner for me and my husband and child in two days. It’s not clear to me that I really have it in me to do a big elaborate Christmas Dessert — had I not done these fruitcakes, I might have said this was the year I would attempt a Buche de Noel, maybe. As things stand, however, I’m thinking, Christmas dinner will be some nice, comforting chicken dish, with jeweled rice on the side (my daughter’s request), and Brussels sprouts; and dessert may well be something as simple and perfect as an Aunt Velma with Marshmallow Fluff.

I believe St. Colwin would understand.

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