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Laurie Colwin's Black Cake

  • c

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.

Thanks all.

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  1. 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.

    4 Replies
    1. re: rjka

      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)

      1. re: ruth arcone

        A West Indian co-worker who gave me the recipe suggested the caramelized sugar approach to substituting for browning, but I couldn't figure out how to get from burnt sticky sugar to the liquid form.

        1. re: rjka

          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.

        2. re: ruth arcone
          c
          Caitlin McGrath

          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.

      2. the Pathmark at the Atlantic Center in Brooklyn has it

        1. p
          Peter Darling

          Does anyone know where I can get this in the San Francisco Bay area? Or online?

          1 Reply
          1. 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!

            Link: http://www.rumcake.com/

          2. 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
            1988.

            Laurie Colwin's Black Cake

            (with addenda and comments by somebody who
            has been making the damn thing for eleven
            years.)

            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
            cake colorant.

            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,
            softened
            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.

            1 Reply
            1. re: bookjunkie
              c
              Caitlin Wheeler

              LOL! I am even more inspired! I know Nigella Lawson has an adaptation of the Laurie Colwin Recipe in her new cookbook (How to be a Domestic Goddess) -- and I don't remember seeing the cake colorant in it. I wonder if hers doesn't come out black?