Friday, October 07, 2005

Black Cake I

Guess how many currants are in the jar and win a prize!
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, 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 screw around withalter recipes.

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.


Blogger Sangroncito said...

Your blog always makes me hungry!

6:50 AM  
Anonymous lindy said...

This looks wonderful.
I began Christmas pudding prep yesterday. Tonight I must stay up late to steam the little bundles for 8 hrs. Then its all about waiting.

5:38 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

I still haven't put the last pound of fruit in. I have the last major tax deadline for the year this week, and the kitchen and I have been mostly strangers. As long as I get it in there by the end of the week, though, I'll still have plenty of time. The black cake doesn't require as much post-baking seasoning as my other fruit cakes do.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

I'm not a big fruit cake fan will I like the black cake?

8:02 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

Dave, if you've never had a dark fruit cake that you've liked, then I'm not sure that you'd like the black cake. It's hard for me to judge because my mother's always made dark fruitcakes, and I've loved them since I was a teenager. If the only dark fruit cakes you've ever had were the storebought monstrosities that get sold at the holidays, then you might like dark fruitcake without knowing it.

I'm pretty sure that I'll be posting my white fruit cake recipe sometime in November. I think you're almost sure to like that one, since everyone does, and since it's pretty much a pound cake with a whole lot of nuts and fruits (and no funky dyed cherries) inside.

10:26 AM  
Blogger judith said...

if you make black cupcakes, can i sign up for one?

11:06 PM  
Blogger Bee said...

Anapestic - Did the Gourmet version differ from the Black Cake chapter that was published in Colwin's Home Cooking? I can't help but notice that you've made quite a departure from the original in the fruit department. Having made Colwin's version, I now want to taste-test yours!

11:45 AM  

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