Make-ahead holiday recipe: Black Cake (Part 1)

21 Oct

The holidays are still a couple of months away, but some of the best treats need to be started now. In the November issue of Reader’s Digest, home cook Deborah Brewster shares her family recipe for Black Cake.

Deborah’s family makes this intensely rich, alcohol-infused fruit cake for all special occasions. The first time her mother ever made it was for her own wedding. Deborah’s dad must have felt like the luckiest man in the world.

Deborah is showing me how to make the cake this year–in two stages. This first post will show the early steps that need to be completed a couple of months ahead of time. In December, we’ll post details about the final steps, when the cake actually goes in the oven.

I couldn’t believe it when Deborah turned up at my house with a boxful of booze and proceeded to empty most of it into the mix. This cake is not for tea-totallers or tight-wads, that’s for sure.

However, I tasted the famous Brewsters’ Black cake a few years back when Deborah and I were colleagues, and I remember it as fondly as my first kiss. It’s not lumpy like traditional British fruit cakes–it’s smooth, spicy and well worth the investment of liquor, time and love.

We discovered the hard way that a stick blender is no substitute for a food processor when it comes to this recipe. This post is dedicated to the good people from KitchenAid who came to our rescue and lent us a food processor after our first attempt to turn all that dried fruit into pulp. Thank you!

Black Cake (Part 1)
(Makes two 9-inch cakes)

Complete this stage up to 90 days before you plan on baking the cake.

1 lb pitted prunes
1.5 lb of raisins
0.5 lb currants
0.5 lb mixed peel
0.5 lb pitted dates
1 lb mixed cherries, chopped
2 bottles of sweet sherry
2 bottles of port
1 bottle of dark rum (Barbadian rum)

1. Grind prunes, 1 lb of the raisins, currants, mixed peel and pitted dates in a food processor. You may need to loosen the mix as you go with some of the alcohol.

2. Once well combined, add remaining 0.5 lb of raisins whole and chopped cherries.

3. Into very large sealable glass bottle/jar, transfer combined fruit. Pour the sherry, port and rum into the mixture, mix then leave to sit in container with lid tightly shut for anywhere between three and 90 days.

Deborah’s tips:
If you do this just a few days in advance, steam the mixture in a pot for a few hours, mixing occasionally.

If you set the fruit long in advance you must add more wine and port occasionally to keep the mixture moist until you are ready to bake.

 Join us back in December to finish up the cake. If you can’t wait until then, here’s the rest of the recipe:

Black Cake (Part 2)

1.5 lb brown demerara sugar (or 0.5 cups store-bought burnt sugar)
1 lb flour, sifted
1 dozen eggs
1 lb salted butter
1 tbsp vanilla
1 tbsp cinnamon
Grated rind of one orange

1. You must burn a third of the sugar the day before you plan to bake the cake (burnt sugar is also available in West Indian supermarkets). To burn the sugar, place a tbsp of butter and 0.5 lb of the brown sugar in a pot with a handle on low. It will start to bubble and get black (this will also produce a strong smell) until all the sugar has melted. Then take it off the stove and let it cool a bit. Then you pour in a cup of port to make more liquid.

2. Preheat oven to 400 F.

3. Beat butter and slowly beat in the 1 lb of demerara sugar (the portion you didn’t burn) until the mixture is smooth.

4. Beat in eggs one at a time.

5. Add the vanilla and sifted flour.

6. Once the ingredients are well combined, pour mix into a large bowl and then add the fruit

Deborah’s mom’s note: there should be between 8 and 12 cups. If you don’t have that many cups don’t worry it will still work.

7. Mix together and then add the cinnamon and grated orange.

8. Pour the burnt sugar through a sieve into the mixture. Start with about half the burned sugar you have made. Stir until the whole mixture is dark brown. This is a good time to taste it. If the cake is not dark enough, pour in more burnt sugar.

9. Add a cup of sherry and port mixed.

10. Now take the mixing spoon and see if it stands on its own in the centre of the bowl. If it doesn’t stand on its own add a bit more flour in ¾ cup increments.

11. Grease two 9-inch spring-form pans with a paste made of butter and flour.

12. Bake the cake for 15 minutes at 400 F then turn the heat down to 250 F. Bake the cake until a poker comes out clean (about 3 or 4 hours).

Deborah’s mom’s note: You MUST test it with the poker. Also, the cake often splits across the top. Don’t worry if that happens!

13. As soon as you remove the cake from the oven,  pour a mixture of rum and sherry (1 cup) around the edges of both cakes (0.5 cup on each cake).

14. Leave the cakes in their tins to cool for a day. The next day remove them from their pans. To do so, turn the cake upside down on cheesecloth and pour the same mixture of rum and sherry on the cake. Wrap the cake entirely in cheesecloth and then with plastic wrap. Keep the cake in a tin and occasionally unwrap and douse with rum and sherry mixture.

This cake can be kept for months, and it just keeps getting better over time.

16 Responses to “Make-ahead holiday recipe: Black Cake (Part 1)”

  1. Pauline Bullen October 24th, 2011 at 1:31 AM #

    I can testify to the fact that the Brewster’s Christmas Black cake is the BEST in North America and throughout the Caribbean! AND, I say this without any bias! What beautiful pictures of not only the cake but the young woman!!! Well done, Readers Digest.

  2. Claudette McLean November 2nd, 2011 at 9:37 AM #

    I believe there is an error here – it should read SECOND best in North America – after the Cumberbatches. I know that we (anyone associated with the Senior Guyanese Friendship Association) will get a huge laugh out of this.

    Congratulations Debbie! Now girls, we have a replacement for the baking of the Christmas cake.
    Auntie Joan (we have known Debbie before she was born).

  3. Karen November 6th, 2011 at 9:27 PM #

    What size bottles of port, sherry and rum?

    • Deborah Brewster November 7th, 2011 at 2:36 PM #

      Hi Karen,

      Good question. We used the 750ml bottles for the recipe and a 26oz bottle of rum. You will not need a full bottle of each when you first grind and marinade the fruit. At that stage, you’ll probably use about half. As the fruit soaks the liquid evaporates and you will need to top up the liquid. The longer the fruit soaks the more you will need to top up. Valerie and I set this fruit in September, and I have added about 1/4 of a bottle more of the port, sherry and rum. I will likely add more this week.

      I hope that helped.


  4. Marilyn Davis November 7th, 2011 at 11:34 AM #

    The recipe says to use 1.5 lbs of demerera sugar or 0.5 cups of burnt sugar. That’s a big difference between the two — 1.5 lbs versus 1/2 cup! Can someone clarify please.

    • Deborah Brewster November 7th, 2011 at 2:36 PM #

      Hi Marilyn,

      Thanks for your question, and I can see that it isn’t very clear.

      You start with 1.5lb of the demerara sugar. However, you only burn 1/3 of that – so .5lb. You need to get .5cup of burnt sugar.

      The remainder of the sugar is used in the cake recipe.

      Sorry about that. Val and I will be making the cake in a few weeks (hopefully, my mom will come by to help!). So, if you like, you can refer back if you need more clarification.


  5. Valerie Howes November 7th, 2011 at 2:46 PM #

    Thanks for answering those questions, Deborah!

  6. Shelley November 13th, 2011 at 9:57 PM #

    What type of sherry and port did you use? I’ve never bought this before and wondered if there is much of a difference in what you purchase.

    • Deborah Brewster November 14th, 2011 at 9:31 PM #

      Hi Shelly,

      I just get the least expensive bottles. There is no need to get the expensive stuff.

      • Shelley November 19th, 2011 at 11:07 PM #

        Thank you – that really helps, as I live in a small town and there is not that much selection.

  7. Jerry Bruce November 22nd, 2011 at 7:54 AM #

    Does all of the alcohol evaporate when you bake the cake? Seems to me you would get quite a “buzz” from eating just one piece of this delightful dessert. ☺

    • Valerie Howes November 22nd, 2011 at 7:02 PM #

      Much of the alcohol will evaporate through baking, but at least a quarter will remain. This is not a cake you’d want to offer kids, recovering alcoholics or anybody who doesn’t drink for religious reasons.

  8. Mrs Lawrence December 1st, 2011 at 11:56 AM #

    This is very similar to my recipe. A few years back when i was about 25 and living in a college town, I went out to buy the alcohol for my cake at the local liquor store. I asked the young man working there what is the cheapest port wine and rum they had. He looked at me funny and I say “I’m making a rum cake so I need port wine.” I go to check out and he didn’t card me, so i commented about that and he says, “well I figured you were old enough because young people don’t make rum cake.” 😐 The assault charges have since been dropped!

  9. Koreen November 19th, 2012 at 3:18 PM #

    This sounds fantastic…..I am not a fan of peel or the green and red dried cherries…can I replace them with pecans or walnuts, or almonds?? Does the fruit have to be minced, or can I just chop up the prunes and leave the raisins whole, I love drunken raisins. I put them in my apple struedel.
    I used to have a nun teacher in Grade 12 who told us how her mother made a cake they kept adding rum and port to…and that it was delicious by the time they got to eat it. I didn’t think nun’s would eat that sort of thing, but she was
    a wonderful teacher full of strange stories. Thanks for the recipe Debbie….a Calgary artist…..Koreen…

  10. Deborah November 20th, 2012 at 2:43 PM #

    Hi Koreen,

    Re: Nuts
    When it comes to experimenting in the kitchen, I often think, ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ I called my Auntie Una in on this one (my mom wasn’t home) and she said that my grandmother used to put in nuts, often ground almond. This was before she discovered my Auntie Sharon’s nut allergy.

    Re: Glass Cherries
    In terms of the fruit, you are free to leave out the glass cherries. As they go in in large pieces, you would really notice them, so you can take them out.

    Re: Peel
    The peel could be left out, but they get so ground that you don’t notice them at all. If you are worried that you would actually taste it, you wont.

    Re: Prunes and Raisins
    The recipe already has whole rasins. 1/3 of them are left whole. You could leave more if you like.
    The texture of my cake is very smooth, I would not just chop the prunes or the dates. If you don’t mince the fruit, it wont fully mix with the batter. Also, I don’t think the sherry, port and rum would get fully absorbed (especially with the dates). You’d have cake batter with large pieces of fruit and some booze. In the end, you have a different cake.

    Hope this helps.

    • Valerie Howes November 21st, 2012 at 6:39 PM #

      Thanks, Deborah, for answering these questions. So excited to hear about all these black cakes being made!

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