Black Cake III
Memory, friends, is a fungible commodity. And I don't mean malleable, though it is most certainly that, too. I mean that your brain (or at least my brain; it is undoubtedly wrong to assume that your relatively sane and ordered brain works in the same manner as my brain, which, were it not kept in relative check by my skull, would at this moment be rolling around Costco, trying to sing the ingredient list for Ferrero Rocher or Almond Roca to a Johnny Cash tune) stores its memories in little units which might show up where they don't necessarily belong so that when you're remembering that time when you were twelve and washing the dog and ended up face down in the mud, your brain might have shifted part of what happened from another episode to the first episode. For your entertainment, of course.
So it's entirely possible, maybe even probable, that when I remember the original Gourmet version of Laurie Colwin's story on Black Cake as being somewhat different from the one that appears in Home Cooking that I am mistaken. Nonetheless, I remain convinced that my brain is not playing tricks on me in this one instance. I am pretty sure that in the original column, there was more and/or different discussion about decorating the black cake and that this discussion included the phrase "Black cake is elegant" as part of an explanation as to why you should use silver dragees but not sprinkles.
Regardless of just how fevered my brain may or may not be at the moment, however, I wasn't entirely satisfied with my decoration of my black cake. It looks a bit like a reject from a Weyerhauser advertising design contest. Alas. When you decorate your black cake, you will do better because you will not have my visual/artistic limitations.
Ms. Colwin, whose work I cannot help but adore, recommended using an egg white and confectioner's sugar icing for the black cake, and I would not have considered disregarding her advice in this matter. She did not give the recipe, claiming that it was available in "any cookbook," by which one assumes that she meant any reasonably comprehensive cookbook and not, say, 365 Ways To Cook Chicken. I took my recipe out of Joy of Cooking, more or less. Ms. Colwin had recommended adding some almond extract so I did. Basically, you take two egg whites, beat them until they're stiff, and then beat in half a teaspoon of almond extract, the juice of half a lemon, and most of a pound of powdered sugar. You add the powdered sugar and lemon juice alternately, until you have a spreadable consistency and a sufficient quantity for your cake.
This icing dries quickly and hard, so you'll need to work swiftly or keep it covered with a damp cloth. You would be well advised to use first a small amount of the icing for a thin crumb coat.
You might also be well advised to then discard the remaining egg white icing and instead use a nice buttercream to finish. The egg white icing was probably originally recommended because a full-sized black cake is a lot of cake, and the hard dried egg white icing will retain its character more or less indefinitely. But if you have some way to make sure that the cake is going to be eaten in a relatively short period of time, why not go for something that tastes like something besides powdered sugar, at least for the finish coat? Of course, if you use the egg white icing, it is relatively easy to remove it from your slice of cake with your fork in one or a few pieces, so you don't actually have to eat it, but one presumes that a softer icing with an almond flavoring (and that is less than 90% sugar; the black cake is already plenty sweet) would be welcome. Or maybe I just don't know how to make good egg white icing, a possibility I am more than willing to consider.
If I had it to do again (and I do, given that even after I've mailed all the ones I'm mailing, I'll still have a sizeable one left), I would have remembered to get some paste food coloring so that I could make a large quantity of red icing and a smaller quantity of green, and then I would have iced the cake in red and piped green holly leaves across the top. And then I would put on some silver dragees. After all, black cake is elegant.