Laurie Colwin's Black Cake
- Caitlin Wheeler
I have been rereading Home Cooking and my imagination was caught by the chapter on West Indian Black Cake. The recipe for this calls for something called "Burnt Sugar Essence" which after extensive 'Net research I saw referred to as "browning". Does anyone know where I can find this, preferably in Manhattan? Alternatively, does anyone know where I can get the cake? Simply Caribbean on Sullivan has it sometimes, but it's too much of a crapshoot for my tastes.
This won't help much, but you can find this (I think it's Blue Mountain Brand)in large suburban supermarkets that have ethnic food sections, i.e., the larger Stop and Shop stores in Connecticut. That's where I found it. I think Caribbean groceries in New York would have it too. Note: before I found it, I tried to substitute molasses for browning in a black cake recipe and it wasn't at all the same.
You can get burnt sugar essence at bodegas and greengrocers in neighborhoods with large Carribean populations. I have found it in Queens and Brooklyn, in most of the stores of that type that I have gone into in those boroughs. You could probably make it by melting and browning sugar the way you would for a caramel.
I love that cake. I am one of those people who hates fruitcake. I realized that there were two things about fruitcake I didn't like. The first is molasses, which I can stand only in ginger cookies. The burnt sugar essence provides the same color, without the molasses taste.
The other thing I hate is candied fruit. So instead of using what is called for in the recipe I use a mixture of raisins, currants, dried apricots, dried plums (that's what prunes are now called), dates, figs, a very little candied lemon and orange peel, and crystallized ginger, and nuts. People swoon over that cake (and I don't think it is just the rum and Passover wine)
Brown the sugar to the darkness you want, then add water until it is as thin as you want (the bottled stuff is fairly thin). Stand back when you add it, because it will spatter, and it is very HOT. You should use hot (not quite boiling) water. If you use cold water it may seize up. If it does just keep heating it until it melts.
re: ruth arcone
I share your dislike for candied fruit. My mother used to make dark fruitcake each year, I believe from a Joy of Cooking recipe, using only dried fruits, and I don't think there was any molasses. She kept it in run-soaked cheesecloth from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
A couple of years ago I used a recipe called "Golden Fruitcake" from Bon Appetit (it's on the Epicurious site), which is a light cake, less dense than traditional fruitcake, with brandy-soaked dried fruit, plus toasted pinenuts and small pieces of marzipan. I sent some to my family, and even the ones who don't like fruitcake raved about it.
re: Peter Darling
I posted this info elsewhere, but am happy to post it again!
It was the same fascination with Laurie Colwin's recipe that sent me on a Black Cake hunt years ago. A superb cake is available at Caribbean Cake Connoiseurs. (Be sure to specify BLACK cake, since they also make brown cakes.) Not cheap, but well worth it for the occasional splurge!
I've been thinking about making this myself this year, though it's probably already too late! I've never tried it.
Anyway, you may benefit from this response to a thread I found on epicurious's site. She explains a) how to make the "blackened" sugar, and b) why it's kind of a waste of time to try.
LAURIE COLWIN'S BLACK CAKE
In belated response to a couple of
inquries, archive nos. 24 48 16 108, Okay,
here it is, from Gourmet Magazine, November
Laurie Colwin's Black Cake
(with addenda and comments by somebody who
has been making the damn thing for eleven
Caution: Note that Laurie, after praising
and extolling the cake in the article, notes,
almost as an afterthought " I confess I have
never made my black cake ."
1 LB raisins, minced
1 LB pitted prunes, minced
1 LB dried currants, minced
1 LB glaceed cherries, minced (I have
substituted dried cherries with good result)
6 oz glaceed lemon peel, minced
6 oz glaceed orange peel, minced.
(This is clearly a heck of a lot of mincing.
I use my food processor, only be careful not
to do too much at once or the whole thing
becomes a gloppy, sugary mass. Of course,
that happens anyway, but at least with small
batches, it's a controlled mass.)
1 bottle dark rum
1 bottle (750 ml) Manischewitz Concord Grape
Wine. (I know, I know. Every year when I get
this from my wine merchant, he looks at me
squiggle-eyed. I am, after all, the one who
harasses him about not having enough
Lungarotti Rubesco Riserva).
Combine the fruits, wine and rum in a large
non-reactive container, cover tightly, and
allow to soak for at least two weeks. (I give
it a month)
2 LB dark brown sugar
Combine one pound of the brown sugar with one
cup of water in a heavy skillet and boil over
moderate heat, washing crystals down from the
side, until the mixture is reduced to about 1
3/4 cups, and has begun to turn black. Let
it cool and reserve it.
VITAL NOTE: This syrup is intended to give
the cake it's color. As described, it won't
work, because it won't get black. You'll
have perfectly good brown cake, but not black
cake. To get a black cake, you've got to go
to a West Indian grocery and in among the
Jerk Seasonings and such, find a bottle of
Burnt Sugar Caramel Syrup - very cheap, about
a buck. Not molasses, not dark corn syrup.
Burnt Sugar Caramel. It's sold primarily as a
4 1/4 cups all purpose flour
4 tsp. double-acting baking powder
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (the freshly
grated is important)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
4 sticks (2 cups, one pound) unsalted butter,
10 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups almond paste
Into a bowl, sift together the flour, the
baking powder, the nutmeg and the cinnamon.
In the large bowl of a mixer, cream the
butter, and the remaining pound of brown
sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating
well after each addition. Beat in the
vanilla, the flour mixture and 1 1/2 cups of
the cooled sugar syrup, reserving the
remaining syrup for another use ( Like
what?). (NOTE: this is where you substitute
1 1/2 cups of the Burnt Sugar Caramel. It is
also where the cake turns black, if you've
used the right stuff.) In another large bowl
(the largest you have, by now you will be
dealing with serious volume) combine the
flour mixture and the fruit mixture, and
combine well. Divide between two 10 inch
springform pans (I have used 1 10-inch and a
couple of 8-inch ones for gift purposes.) and
bake in a preheated 350° oven for 1 hour and
50 minutes to 2 hours or until the cakes are
set and a tester inserted into the center
comes out with some crumbs adhering to it.
(The centers of the cakes will be quite
moist.) Let the cakes cool in the pans on a
rack, then remove the bottom and sides and
wrap in foil or plastic wrap. Let stand for
at least a week. (Again, I think longer is
better. I've kept them, tightly wrapped and
unfrozen, for a year.)
Finishing the cake.
Black cake must be iced. Colwin used a
fairly standard Imperial Frosting
(confectioner's sugar, egg whites, and lemon
juice, beaten until thick). To finish the
cake, roll enough almond paste out to make a
circle as big as the cake and about 1/8-inch
thick. Carefully fit the layer over the
cake, and trim as necessary to fit. (I've
put a layer of almond paste in the middle,
and one year went crazy and enrobed the whole
thing in almond paste. Frost the cake with
the icing, and decorate with silver dragees.
Dealing with leftovers: Black cake, not
necessarily frosted, makes a great small
dessert right through the winter; as long as
it's kept tightly wrapped, it does fine.
I've served it with a flaming hard sauce, or
warmed from the microwave. It's resilient.
Most people don't believe it's a fruitcake.
You will find that most people who eat it
think it's got a lot of chocolate in it -
which says a great deal about the taste
perceptions of the average chocoholic.