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.