Black Cake I
I am, in general, an impromptu cook. I will plan a menu for a party a week or two in advance, but I will almost inevitably change my mind when I start the marketing or, worse yet, when I start the cooking, and what I end up with may be drastically different from the initial plan. This is a practice that has served me well, but it is really not a good strategy for Christmas.
Christmas is, or should be, all about tradition. I am not saying that you have to make the exact same cookies or family meals that your mother made, but I am saying that part of what people like about the holiday is the sense of the familiar, so that if you are good with turkey or goose and the guests at your table are used to that, you may want to think twice before switching over to Thai fish cakes at the last minute. (You can always make the Thai fish cakes another day, and if you do, remember to send me the recipe, okay?).
And, really, it's not like Christmas can just sneak up on you like an unexpected houseguest. You know it's coming, and you know exactly when it's coming, so you've got lots of time to prepare. So you're talking about a lot of project cooking. Foods that are made days, weeks, or months in advance and that improve with the passage of time.
Black Cake is a definite project. Almost all fruitcakes require some period of seasoning after they're baked. It is one of the joys of December to occasionally unwrap the foil from the fruitcakes and pour on a bit more of whatever spirit(s) you're using this year. Black Cake requires a lengthy seasoning even before it becomes batter. Dried fruits are macerated in alcohol for at least two weeks (the upper end of the maceration period is apparently boundless; I know a guy in Dubuque who put a jar of macerating fruits in his pantry back in 1967 and is still waiting for the inspiration to put them into a cake). The end result has little resemblance to the beginning ingredients, which, as you can see from the picture, is probably a good thing.
I reckon that many Americans were first exposed to Black Cake through an article in Gourmet written by Laurie Colwin. The article was later published in her Home Cooking. For years, I moved my collection of Gourmet with me wherever I went, and whenever I made a Black Cake, I'd get out that issue for the recipe. With the advent of epicurious.com, I had assumed that all of the old Gourmet recipes would be available on line, so I finally let my collection go a couple of years ago. Perhaps epicurious has the Colwin Black Cake recipe, but I have not been able to find it there. It is otherwise available online, and that is a very good thing, but in searching for it, you are likely to come across a number of other very similar recipes. And I suppose that's a good thing, too, except that it makes you realize that you have a lot of options, and maybe I didn't need to know that, given my already great inclination to
I do intend to follow the Colwin recipe. Mostly. What I'm going to play around with is the mixture of dried fruits. Because I'm doubling the recipe, I figure that I get ten pounds of dried fruit in total. Right now I'm up to nine, and what I have in my big plastic jar (the one that has just this week been emptied of the vin de noix that I made in the summer and that I now have six liters or so of in bottles around the house) is
1.5 liter Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine
1.5 liter dark rum
2 pounds pitted prunes
1 pound dried pitted tart montmorency cherries
1 pound dried pineapple chunks
2 pounds Thompson seedless raisins
8 oz. organic candied ginger chunks
2 pounds currants
8 oz. candied orange peel
The instructions tell you to chop the fruit as fine as you can before pouring the alcohol over it to macerate. I have been working a lot this week, and since it had taken me an hour just to get the jar ready for the fruit, I was in no mood to either chop by hand or attempt to make the food processor work on sticky dried fruit. So I poured my wine and rum into the jar and then dumped in the fruit right out of the package. Once it has soaked for a week or so, it should be a relatively easy matter to turn it into mush in the food processor. Or I can find the grinding attachment to my KitchenAid and grind them, which would be silly, but fun somehow.
Even without the tenth pound (and I still don't know what dried fruit I'll use for the last pound; apples? apricots? figs? dates?), I have a lot of fruit macerating in a lot of alcohol (the jar in that picture is about eighteen inches tall). I am going to end up with a lot of black cake.