burnt sugar essence
I couldn't believe how many wrong recipes there are out there claiming to be Laurie Colwin's, so I finally just transcribed it myself (from the last chapter of her book Home Cooking).
The recipe calls for adding one 4-ounce bottle of burnt sugar essence or for making your own with one pound of sugar as follows:
"A black cake really is black, not dark brown. It gets its blackness in part from burnt sugar essence which is available in West Indian grocery stores. If it’s unavailable, Betty suggests putting a pound of brown sugar in a heavy skillet with a little water and boiling it gently until it begins to turn black. You do not want to over-boil. It should be only slightly bitter, black, and definitely burnt.”
(The Betty referred to above is Betty Chambers, from whom Laurie Colwin was introduced to Black Cake and from whom she got the recipe.)
Note: Per Laurie Colwin’s recipe, she seems to be saying to use the entire amount from 1 pound of sugar in the recipe, even though it calls for only 4 ounces of store-bought burnt sugar essence. Could that be right?
In addition, I also found this recipe on line for making burnt sugar essence for another recipe for Black Cake yourself:
BURNT SUGAR ESSENCE (HOMEMADE)
1 pound of white or light brown sugar
¼ cup of boiling water
If you can’t find burnt sugar essence (also known as “Browning” in Caribbean markets) you can make your own by placing a deep, heavy-bottomed pot over high heat, adding 1 pound of white or light brown sugar, and stirring continuously with a wooden spoon at a gentle (not rapid) boil until the sugar darkens.
The sugar will smoke, which is normal. When the sugar is almost black, stir in ¼ cup of boiling water (using caution, as it will splatter when added), and remove from heat.
As a side note, Colwin says to use two 9-inch cake pans. One source online said that's only true if they're 4 inches tall, and that two 10" springform cake pans served them better.
Finally, Laurie Colwin doesn't give a recipe for the icing, so here's what I found for it based on her description:
BLACK CAKE ICING
Per Laurie Colwin, "Black cake must be iced. The icing is the simplest icing of powdered sugar and egg white with the addition of ½ teaspoon of almond extract. This is essential, and a perfect foil to the complexity of the cake. Since black cakes are often wedding cakes, it is traditional to decorate them with colored icing, flowers, swags, and garlands. Any standard cookbook has a recipe for white icing, and the decoration is up to the cook."
Yield: 3 ½ cups
3 ounces pasteurized egg whites
½ teaspoon almond extract
4 cups confectioners' sugar
1. In the bowl of a mixer (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer), combine the egg whites and almond extract and beat until frothy. With the mixer on at low speed, add the confectioners’ sugar little by little and mix until the sugar is fully incorporated and the mixture is shiny.
2. At that point, turn the speed up to high and beat until the mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks (about 5-7 minutes).
3. The icing can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
re: Robert Lauriston
According to the recipe, the cake is brown w/ home-made syrup: "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."
That said, I'm inspired by your experience, making your own, even if not totally black.
But IF I wanted black, are there places to get West Indian products like this in Berkeley/Oakland?
If there were, thought I'd pick up a bottle, when I headed out to get the bottle of rum and (gulp) Manischevitz in which to steep the fruit for the next few weeks.
re: Robert Lauriston
Though it might be something more subtle, not obvious in the description -- and to answer that I'd ask an experienced West-Indian cook -- from the descriptions above it sure sounds like just a caramel syrup. True caramel (= burnt sugar) is required in diverse recipes I've seen over the years, made simply by melting sugar in a heavy pot on a stove (it melts around 350 F), gently cooking until it's as dark as you want, then allowing to cool to lukewarm and adding water to dissolve. (I have occasionally made this by accident. ;-) Indiustrial variations of that appear in endless commercial foods from Coca-Cola (tm) to licorice to most of the colored commercial sauces, gravies, etc. etc.
Sugars decompose into basically carbon (whence the delicate black) and water, under the influence of heat, acid, or age. That's why white-wine carpet stains that you don't clean thoroughly will "develop" over time like photographic film to a much darker and more permanent stain.
Well, I answered my own question: you can get burnt sugar essence at a Jamaican store on Broadway @ 40th St. in Oakland. Very nice folks. Inflation from the "buck" noted above--$4.99. My dried fruits are steeping, as we speak. Will report back in two weeks' time re the color of the finished product!