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Jamaican Black Cake For A Rite Of Passage Christmas

Una Rust's Jamaican Black Cake was legendary in her family. Credit: Suzanne Rust

Una Rust's Jamaican Black Cake was legendary in her family. Credit: Suzanne Rust

Proust had his madeleine; I have Jamaican black cake. Biting into a piece whisks me back to my grandmother Una Rust’s Harlem kitchen where, along with her sisters Doris and Petrona, she performed the annual black cake-making ritual before the holidays.

I recall the glass jars of dried fruit, soaking in spirits, looking like a delicious science project; the beautiful mess of cinnamon and nutmeg dust that covered the countertops; baking tins lined in parchment paper, and the intoxicating scent of rum that filled the apartment. Practically elbow-deep in batter, they blended the concoction in giant Bon Ton potato chip tins because no bowl was big enough to contain batter for all the cakes they made for friends and family. Although of Jamaican descent, my grandmother and her sisters were born and raised in Panama, and their cake was surely a loving blend of the two heritages.

Caribbean Christmas tradition

For the uninitiated, black cake, made throughout the Caribbean, has a history as rich and flavorful as its sock-it-to-me rum taste. Some may refer to it as fruit cake, but this has nothing to do with the often dry, hockey puck of a dessert that so many have come to know and loathe.

Black cake, served at Christmas and special occasions, is like British plum pudding’s sassier sister gone island-style, and it’s a sexy hodgepodge of ground rum-soaked raisins, dates, prunes, citrus peel, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Some versions have frosting on them (they are often used as wedding cakes) but my grandmother never used it, and for my palate, it’s like gilding the lily. Rich, dense and gorgeous are the common denominators for black cake; however, each culture, from Jamaica to Trinidad, puts a unique spin on it.

Black cake is a special occasion dessert. You don’t just whip it up. It’s time-consuming, and making it can be pricey: pounds of dried fruit, rum and other spirits can add up. But it is a good bang for your buck because it lasts. I remember how my mother would hide a few pieces in aluminum foil in the back of the fridge, behind something undesirable, and I would see her nibbling at it secretly, even in early spring.

I have been fantasizing about making this cake for years, but I really wanted Una’s recipe. Of course no one had the good sense to write it down. I contacted a few family members, but to no avail. I had to accept that the original Rust recipe died when my grandmother did. My little half-West Indian heart was crushed. (This is a cautionary tale: If grandma is in the kitchen cooking up some goodness, get the dang recipe.)

In search of the perfect fruit cake recipe

In my quest for an authentic recipe, I got in touch with Jessica Harris, culinary historian and cookbook author, who put me in touch with Sharifa Burnett, a lovely Jamaican woman who was kind enough to share her recipe with me. I decided to take the plunge.

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Suzie Farm West Indian grocery store in Brooklyn. Credit: Suzanne Rust

I consulted my friend, Chef Arlene Stewart, a Trinidadian girl, on the best places to buy the dried fruit, because prices at my local Manhattan supermarkets would have emptied my wallet. We made a pilgrimage to Flatbush, Brooklyn, where we found shops that catered perfectly to my needs — bags and bags of dried fruit and citrus peel, special browning sauce used to color the cake, etc., all priced to move.

Once at home, I began the laborious task of grinding up the dried fruit. When my poor mini Cuisinart Chop and Prep died, I switched over to my blender. Once that was done, I put the mix in a large glass jar, added the rum and port, and let it marinate for almost a week.

A note about equipment

Should you decide to make this cake, be sure you have a powerful mixer and big bowl because the batter, with the addition of the dried fruit, is thick and abundant. I had to transfer everything midway to a bigger bowl, and then when my hand mixer wasn’t quite doing the trick (clearly, I need better appliances), I did what my grandmother did; I used my hands to blend the batter, and that worked quite nicely. The batter generously filled two 9-inch parchment-lined baking pans, and I found that it took longer than I expected — about 2½ hours — to bake. I just kept checking with a thin knife down the middle until it came out clean.

However, once my cake had finally baked and cooled, and I had brushed it with a little rum, it looked like the cake I had come to love. And when I finally took a nibble, I actually shed a tear. With the luscious blend of fruit, the dense texture, the aromatic rum flavor, it tasted almost as good as my grandmother’s, and the memories spent with family, long since passed, flooded back. Making that cake felt like a rite of passage, and I think Una Rust is smiling somewhere.

Sharifa Burnett’s Jamaican Christmas Black Cake

Makes two 9-inch cakes

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound prunes

1 pound dried currants

1 pound raisins

1 pound maraschino cherries

¼ pound of mixed peel (available at Caribbean specialty stores)

4 cups Port wine

1 cup white Jamaican rum

For the cake:

1 pound of dark brown sugar

1 pound butter

1 pound of flour

2 teaspoons of baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

12 eggs

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Browning sauce or burnt sugar to color (available in Caribbean specialty shops.)

¼ to ½ cup of rum or port wine for brushing

Directions

1. Combine the prunes, currants, raisins, maraschino cherries, mixed peel, wine and rum in a glass jar and let stand for at least 3 days.

As an alternative, you can steam the fruit on a low flame in red wine until it’s very soft, then grind the mixture in a food processor.

2. Heat the oven to 300 F.

3. Beat the sugar and butter together until mixture creamy and fluffy.

4. Mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg.

5. Add eggs to the creamed butter mixture one at a time. Continue mixing and fold the flour mixture into batter.

6. Add fruit and alcohol mixture, almond extract and vanilla and continue mixing.

7. Your mixture should have a brown color. If the mixture is too light, then add browning or burnt sugar a small amount at a time, until mixture has a dark brown color.

8. Line two 9-inch baking pans with parchment paper. Pour mixture in pans, filling each. Bake for 1½ hours, then reduce temperature to 250 F. Check cake after 2 hours with a tester (center of cake).

9. To preserve the cake you may brush the cake with wine and white rum. Wrap with wax paper then foil and place in a cool place. If you put it in the fridge, be sure to bring to room temperature for a few hours before serving.

Top photo composite: Una Rust (pictured) was the inspiration for a search for a Jamaican black cake recipe. Credit: Suzanne Rust



Zester Daily contributor Suzanne Rust is a contributing editor for the MSNBC website, The Grio, where she covers culture and high-profile professionals in the arts. As a former staff editor and media spokesperson for Real Simple magazine, she was a frequent contributor to NBC's "Today" show and "Weekend Today" and has appeared as an expert on CNN, WABC, WCBS, Fox and PBS, where she covered topics such as health, beauty, entertaining, organizing, and, of course, cooking. Rust was also a host for two seasons of the "Home Savvy" show, a home improvement web series sponsored by the Home Depot, on MadameNoire.com.

17 COMMENTS
  • Rene L. Lavergneau 12·11·13

    What a delightful trip into the past. I, too, remember the black (fruit) cake which was the pride and must-have of every West Indian/Caribbean family during the Christmas holidays. More rum was added to the left-over portion from time to time which, I imagine, must have served as a preservative, now that I think of it. It was then painstakingly wrapped in wax paper, followed by a kitchen towel (before the advent of aluminum foil), and safely stored in the refrigerator for future use when special guests would visit.

    Yes, white icing was also employed when it was to serve as a wedding cake. The icing, however, was not applied until the very last minute to prevent the brown goodness from oozing out and staining the virgin whiteness of the finished product..

    Suzanne, many thanks for transporting me to those precious days of years gone by. Now that I’m eighty, I sorely miss that connection to my childhood and those family members who made the Christmas holidays so special a time of the year. How nostalgic!

  • Stephanie 12·11·13

    Loved this article. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful memory and can’t wait to try this cake!

  • gmm 12·11·13

    As a child of Jamaican heritage I remember many black cakes at Christmas time and wanting to be old enough to partake. As an adult I’ve been searching for a recipe to bring back those memories of frenzied cake gifting. Thanks for this recipe. Now I can continue this delicious tradition.

  • Michael 12·11·13

    Can’t wait to try this recipe

  • Naidre 12·11·13

    Would it be sacrilege to bake the cake in smaller tins- like muffin or mini loaves to give as gifts? Sounds delicious!!

  • Courtney 12·11·13

    Not much of a chef myself, but this recipe looks like a winner. Brava !!

  • Rodolfo 12·12·13

    I had better come in December instead of August…Reading the piece, remainds me to that great days in Harlem. I liked to read it very much and I’ ll be sharing it with someone that would appreciate the beautiful spirit that underlies the story

  • Michele 12·12·13

    Thank you, Suzanne! This sounds delicious! And, you don’t have to start it 6 months before Christmas! My grandmother, from Illinois, made a very dark, dense, moist fruitcake, saturated in brandy for six months in the cellar, that had nothing to do with ‘store-bought’ fruitcakes. I’m going to try this one as gifts for the nurses from the islands, who take care of my 93 yr old friend in a nursing home in BedStuy.

  • WMM 12·12·13

    Black cake was made for every Christmas and any big event the family was celebrating. Your article brought back great memories. Thank you.

  • Earl 12·12·13

    Sounds good!! Maybe I’ll get the courage up to try this recipe. If not, I’ll have to go somewhere where the courageous ones make this…sounds yummy!

  • Jill 12·12·13

    What a wonderful, delicious island journey. Thanks for taking me along. I must admit, I’m not ready to try this myself, but I would love to dig in to a piece, and I can’t wait to read about your next cooking adventure!

  • Lotusfilmgirl 12·12·13

    I so love this. Now, you know I have to make this, right? I mean, grandma recipes are my crack. Well done, chica!

  • Aida 12·13·13

    I love fruit cake! I shall try this recipe soon.

  • lauren 1·15·15

    I love to make this cake, as a little girl I remember helping my mom.
    When I moved to Europe I took the recipe with me.
    I myself make this cake for friends and family, for weddings and anniversaries for them, it is a honour for me to carry on this tradition.

  • Antoinette 12·4·15

    I too am very happy to have found this recipe, as all my recipes are still in storage.
    Miss Jean my dear friend who is JA that we lived in Cayman years ago made me these, and it was to die for. Yes unless you are in Brooklyn or Harlem it IS very expensive to buy all the ingredients. And it is very time consuming. But I could taste the LOVE in every bite! God Bless Miss Jean!

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