You can’t have Christmas without black cake – well maybe you can but then it wouldn’t be a Guyanese Christmas. Which brings us to the question of how to make black cake? This should be easy and everyone should know how, but just in case you don’t, we asked Cynthia Nelson, chef and Tastes Like Home columnist for The Scene to share her thoughts and recipe on black cake.
“First off, I do not refer to the cake as black cake; I call it Christmas cake and that is just a personal preference. I always think of black cake as the cake made for weddings with lots of royal icing and elaborately decorated,” she said.
“I cannot say that the recipe and my methods are my family’s as I never actually saw how my mom made her Christmas cake. All I knew is that we had to cream the butter and sugar (which I really did not like doing).
“My mother was not big into Christmas cakes and that is why I have no recollections of how her Christmas cakes tasted. She likes and prefers pound cake (which in Guyana we call sponge cake).”
All in the soaking
So what is the key to the perfect black cake? For Cynthia, it’s all in the timing, that is, the length of time you’ve had your fruits soaking. “Making an excellent Christmas cake, for me, starts with having an excellent batch of rum-soaked fruits that have been allowed to cure for no less than 1 year, 12 full months. The older the fruit the better the cake,” she said.
“Growing up we always had fruits soaked for Christmas cake. My mom would blend the fruits, place them in a glass jar and leave them at the bottom of one of the cupboards.
“Each year I set fruits. I will use the one-year-old batch for this year’s cake and then blend a new batch of fruits to replace what I would have used; this way, I am never out of long-cured fruits.
“At any point in time you will find two bottles of set fruits in my home. One bottle of fruits would be two years old and the other one year old. Given that I always blend excess fruits each year, there is always an extra bottle being cured. Actually, this year, my cake will be made with some two and one-year-old fruits. I want to leave back enough to have a three-year-old bottle of fruits!”
And why soak so long? “I find that without the long soaking, the texture of the cake is not moist; it tends to dry out because of the high alcohol content coupled with the long baking that is needed for the cake. In my opinion, the short soaking of fruits for the cake does not allow the alcohol to properly break down the fruits or to balance out its own flavour with the other ingredients.
“I like to leave a little of the old blended batch of fruits in the bottle, to which I will add the new set of fruits. I like to think of the old batch as the ‘mother’ that gets things going. I stir the new blended fruit into some of the old one and set it to ripen for 12 months or more.”
Obviously the cake got its name from its dark colour. And some of us go for stout or burnt sugar to darken our cake, but Cynthia prefers to leave out the darkening agents, “I do not add any darkening agents to my cake, such as stout, browning, burnt sugar or molasses.
“The dark colour of my Christmas cake is natural; it comes from the ingredients that form my blended fruits mixture. I add more prunes and currants which are black to give it that rich colour.
I generally use dark rum to soak my fruits and if I have on hand, I would use some port as well as cherry brandy. A little brown sugar is added to the fruits as they are blending as this is to off-set any tartness from the fruits themselves.”
Have your cake and eat it
Says Cynthia, “The texture I like for my cake is that is should almost be pudding-like moist and heavy with heavenly rum and fruits!” And while she likes her cake with “heavenly rum” that rum is not added afterwards. “I do not drizzle or ‘feed’ my cake when it is finished baking with rum or any alcoholic beverage as I do not find that necessary. I know that it is a tradition practised in many homes and in England as well. I don’t do it because my cake comes out exactly the way I want it and like it – dense, moist, fruity and boozy.”
And of course the best black cake is “stale cake” as some people would say, and it seems that Cynthia would agree with that too: “I bake my cake four to five days before Christmas because I want it to sit and continue to cure.”
And of course who doesn’t like their cake with a little something on the side? But for Cynthia, “When it comes to eating the cake, I like to eat it as is; I don’t want any mauby, sorrel, ginger beer, sweet drink or anything, just a slice of the cake as is, so that I can taste it fully.”
While this is the way that Cynthia likes to make her cake she gave a little advice to all those who will be putting on that oven mitten: “Cooking and tasting are subjective; use recipes only as guides and tweak wherever necessary to suit your taste, and that is exactly what I did. So, my recipe works for me.”