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Laurie Colwin's Black Cake

Caitlin Wheeler Sep 4, 2001 06:28 PM

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.

  1. b
    bookjunkie Dec 7, 2001 06:04 PM

    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.

    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
    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,
    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
      Caitlin Wheeler Dec 7, 2001 08:30 PM

      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?

    2. p
      Peter Darling Nov 27, 2001 03:23 PM

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

      1 Reply
      1. re: Peter Darling
        CakeGuy Mar 14, 2004 12:48 AM

        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. j
        jerry j. Sep 4, 2001 08:43 PM

        the Pathmark at the Atlantic Center in Brooklyn has it

        1. r
          rjka Sep 4, 2001 06:38 PM

          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
            ruth arcone Sep 4, 2001 07:44 PM

            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
              rjka Sep 4, 2001 08:44 PM

              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
                ruth arcone Sep 5, 2001 06:05 PM

                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
                Caitlin McGrath Oct 4, 2001 02:26 PM

                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.

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