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.

The Cake That Was Twenty-Four Years in the Making

It was in the fall of 1993 that I first read Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and, hence, in the fall of 1993 that I first read about Black Cake. Black Cake is a West Indian fruit cake. Because I am no fan of fruit cakes I had little interest in eating one of these things, but I enjoyed the essay very much and it stuck in my head.

Over the years, my feelings about fruit and fruitcakes haven’t evolved much but my feelings about cooking have evolved tremendously and in the last, say, twenty years, I’ve thought, “Some day I will attempt to make a Black Cake.”

To this end, sometime around the year 2000, when a bottle of Jamaican burnt sugar presented itself to me while in a specialty shop, I bought it. “NOW I can make a Black Cake!” I said to myself. But I didn’t.

A decade went by. I moved in and out of apartments. Every time I moved the kitchen I packed up that pretty little bottle of Jamaican burnt sugar. I felt stupid and thought, “I should really make a Black Cake this year.” I said this in 2002 and I said it in 2011 and I said it many, many times when I noticed the jar on a shelf or in a drawer. I knew that it did not speak well for me that I’d had this stuff so long and never opened the jar.

It was last fall when I decided enough was enough and I had to get my shit together to do this. Late last fall, then, I went and bought a vast quantity of dried fruit and dark rum and I spent considerable time whizzing these things together in the food processor. We’re talking pounds of dried fruit and an entire bottle of dark rum and a ridiculous quantity, too, of Manischewitz, which is mysteriously called for in this recipe. I carefully spooned this almost-black sludge into several Mason jars and stowed them away. It was clear to me that I would not be baking for Christmas 2016, but, having made the fruit sludge, I was obligating myself to bake the cakes in time for Christmas 2017.

“In March I will bake the cakes,” I said to myself.

In March, I did not bake the cakes.

And then it was summer, and the thought of baking fruitcake was — impossible.

However, in the last few days, the tag end of August into early September, the weather here has cooled down significantly — thank God — and so it was that one recent morning I was putting things away in the kitchen and I realized that the house was a comfortable temperature and I had a dozen eggs in the fridge and just enough brown sugar; what’s more, it was 10.30 in the morning and I didn’t have to be anywhere until 3 p.m.: if I wanted to, I could, on this very day, finally assemble Black Cake.

It was eleven in the morning by the time I got my shit together, and I did not waste time after that. Because, to be quite honest, I do not often have an entire dozen eggs and that much brown sugar just sitting around. What’s more, the Mason jars of fruit — which I had moved from the basement pantry up to the counter in the kitchen sometime over the summer, in hopes of forcing myself to deal with the issue — were really starting to annoy me. They were taking up too much space. “Make the freaking cakes already,” I said to myself, as I pulled out the brown sugar. “They need to sit around for several months before serving them anyhow. Just do this and be done with it.”

I pulled out the eggs, I went to the basement and took out the requisite entire pound of butter (stowed in the freezer down there), and I plugged in the Kitchen-Aid. Because the butter was frozen I had to grate a lot of it into the mixer. I decided that the thing to do was soften some of it by nuking and let grating half of it be sufficient. A pound of butter went into the Kitchen-Aid, and I began to cream it. I propped the Laurie Colwin cookbook up on top of the toaster and referred to it constantly as I worked. I also did one last series of Google searches for Black Cake to confirm that the recipe would work, that I was on the right track. It was clear that I did have one significant problem. Colwin’s recipe — which she says, mind you, that she herself never made — calls for two very deep 9″ cake pans: something I do not own. This meant that I was about to mix up a truly vast quantity of cake batter and I was going to have to really wing it in re: cake pans. Not ideal, to put it mildly. But I was game and determined. So I greased and floured five tinfoil mini-loaf pans and two not-so-deep 9″ cake pans, thinking, “Surely this will hold all the batter.”

How innocent I was in those days (seven days ago).

I had the butter and brown sugar creamed together, and it was time to add in the fruit. I opened one jar of fruit, and used a spatula to get it all out of the jar and into the mixing bowl; and then another jar; and it was at this point that I realized that my Kitchen-Aid was not going to be up to this task. Not because it wasn’t powerful enough to stir the mixture; but because the mixture was just going to be….. too damned much for the bowl to hold. It was at this point that I looked up on my shelf for the biggest mixing bowl I own, which is vast, not very deep-but-deep enough metal bowl we generally use for things like making a lot of whipped cream or for serving salad to 20 people at Thanksgiving. It’s a big bowl.

I transferred the contents of the mixer bowl to the metal salad bowl, kept adding Mason jars of fruit sludge, and then added seven jumbo eggs (which I figured would be roughly the equivalent of the dozen eggs St. Colwin called for). I mixed and mixed and mixed, alternating between using a spatula and a wooden spoon, because no one utensil could manage the task. I added the vanilla and I added the cinnamon and nutmeg and I mixed and mixed and mixed. Finally it was time to add the flour. It’s an incredibly small amount of flour this recipe calls for — perhaps all fruitcakes are like this — a pound of flour plus 1/2 cup, combined with three teaspoons (that’s one tablespoon to you and me) of baking powder. I weighed and measured and, bit by bit, I combined everything into one massive lumpy mess. This is not a cake batter that makes me swoon because it’s so beautiful. It looks like the devil’s vomit, to be honest. But I pressed on.

I then looked at the mixing bowl, and contemplated the pans I’d prepped — let’s run through this again: five tinfoil mini-loaf pans, and two not-so-deep 9″ cake pans — and grasped immediately that this was not going to handle all the batter.

As it happens, I recently attended a talk at the Institute Library in downtown New Haven, where a forensic linguist, Dr. Robert Leonard, was talking about his work. He uses linguistics to help solve crimes. Among the many interesting things he said was, “When someone starts a sentence with the word “fuck,” that’s not normal.” Dr. Leonard is a very interesting guy, and very smart, but the woman sitting next to me and I disagree with him entirely: we feel it is very common for people to start a sentence with the word “fuck.” “I often use it as a complete sentence,” I said to my friend, who nodded.

Contemplating the range of cake pans buttered and floured before me, I used “Fuck” as a very complete sentence. And then I opened a drawer where I keep baking equipment and I began to rummage around looking for smallish Bundt-type pans. I pulled out one pudding tin and one small Bundt pan, greased and floured them as fast as I could, and lined up all the pans on the counter. The oven was pre-heated to 350°, the batter was activated, and I had to be at school to pick up my daughter at 3 p.m. It was a quarter after one.

I got out my kitchen scale and began to carefully ladle cake batter into the mini-loaf pans, weighing them so that each pan would have roughly the same amount of batter in them. I had no idea at all how much these cakes would rise (not much, I now know: I could have put more batter into them and everything would have been ducky) so I was conservative and put 13 oz. of batter into each of them. Then I set them on a cooky sheet (to make it easier to move them in and out of the oven). I ladled cake batter into the two 9″ rounds and set them aside. I peered into the bowl and saw that I still had a ridiculous quantity of cake batter in there, and I sighed, and I started to ladle batter into the two little bundt pans. To my considerable relief, I was able to fit the rest of the batter nicely into those pans. So in the end, this recipe made nine — count them, nine! — Black Cakes. Two nine inch rounds, five mini-loaves, and two little Bundt cakes.

This is more fruitcake than anyone needs. “I will give these away to people come Christmas,” I told myself. “Which is fine. But I just don’t understand how this is supposed to be a batter for two very deep 9” rounds. The “very deep” would have to mean six inches.” Thinking about it now, I still don’t understand at all how two 9″ rounds is supposed to be enough to hold this batter.

But I slid all the pans into the oven and then I set the timer for an hour and thirty minutes and I went about my business, which means I started the heroic process of leaning up the huge fucking mess I’d made.

By the time I’d wiped down the counter and got everything squared away, the only thing left for me to to do was throw myself on the couch for ten minutes before starting to check on the cakes. I did have a small logistical problem, which was that I had to go get my daughter at the end of her school day, and I of course had no idea when these cakes would actually be done. I started testing them after an hour and thirty minutes and found them…. not done.  It was clear that the proscribed baking time was something of a flight of fancy. “Fine,” I said to myself, “I’ll go get my daughter, let her play outside for a bit, and when we come home, they’ll be done.” This plan worked just fine, and so it came to pass that at around 3.30 in the afternoon, I had nine Black Cakes resting on racks on the counter. “That’s a lot of cake,” my daughter observed.

It took several hours for the cakes to cool down enough for me to feel confident about turning them out. In the end, the two bundt cakes came out like a charm, fat little cake ladies, and the 9″ rounds were no trouble at all, but the mini loaf pans were a bit more problematic. Well, one was. There’s always one, isn’t there. So out of nine cakes, eight sprang from their pans with good cheer, and one kind of tore and was an irretrievable mess. I let them finish cooling on the racks for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening; these things have to be wrapped and stored for a long time, and I wanted to be absolutely sure they were cool before I moved onto the next step.

That evening, as I was washing the dinner dishes, my husband was standing at the counter where the cakes were resting. “So these are the cakes, huh?” he said. He clearly had what we might call mixed feelings about this enterprise. On the one hand, he’s all for cake; on the other hand, these are fruitcakes, which aren’t, you know, fun. I turned toward him to say, “Yup, now they sit for a few months —” and saw him take a bit of the broken cake and pop it into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed and got a look of disappointed surprise on his face. “You’re not supposed to eat it NOW,” I yelped.

“You’re not?” he said, yanking back his hand. “I guess that’s good, because….” He looked sad. “It has a kind of raw, raisiny quality to it.”

“It’s supposed to mellow, or something, for MONTHS,” I said. “MONTHS. You don’t eat this for MONTHS.”

“Okay,” he said apologetically, backing away from the cakes.

I’ve wrapped them all in tinfoil and I’m storing them in the metal cabinet in the basement where I kept the Mason jars of macerating fruit. There, they will be safe from cats, children, peckish husbands, and probably also fire and brimstone. I’ve made the Black Cakes; in December I will frost them with the requisite white icing, assuming that when I unwrap them they’re not just covered in mold and completely vile looking; and if it turns out we all hate the stuff, I’ll never do it again.

On the other hand, if I unwrap them, and there’s no mold, and I frost them, and it turns out we all find it delightful, I guess Boxing Day will find me going out to buy five pounds of dried fruit again.


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