Over the last several years, people suggested that I write a book of fruit desserts. I point out, helpfully, that I already have, but every year a few books of fruit desserts come out, mostly relating to pies or crisps and cobblers. So it was interesting to see one devoted solely to cakes, called (appropriately) Fruit Cake: Recipes for the Curious Baker.
But no need to worry that it’s a book of Christmas cakes with sticky green cherries in them. It’s by Jason Schreiber, a food stylist and recipe developer, who dreamed up with seventy-five cakes that feature fruit, everything from Key Lime Meringue Cake to a tropical fruit Panettone. There are also Pineapple Breakfast Cakes, his riff on the classic Sachertorte with chocolate and apricots, and a Jamaican Black Cake, that caught my eye for a number of reasons.
I’ve been intrigued by Jamaican Black Cake ever since I had a slice at a local restaurant. It was like a moist gingerbread, but loaded with bits and bites of dried and candied fruit, and yup, a good amount of rum. Since we’re all adults here (we’re using rum, right?) we can dismiss any notions or jokes about fruitcakes since Panforte and others fall into the “serious” category, and you won’t find any sticky green cherries in this one. (Unless you put them there.)
I did some scooting around looking at recipes for Jamaican Black Cake, and found a few examples in some of my cookbooks in my library, and some online. I made a few; some were soft and gooey, like a steamed pudding, others were more cake-like. Some were soaked in wine (through one blog post I learned about Red Label Wine), others used in cherry brandy, but most involved rum. Origins were traced to the British Caribbean, and its similarity to both steamed pudding and gingerbread does suggest that. A few of the recipes didn’t quite work, so I was interested in Jason’s version.
For its black color, “browning” or burnt sugar syrup is typically used. I found some recipes online, which were basically caramel, so I suspect the real deal is something more nuanced and special. Unfortunately the bottled ones sold online are out-of-reach (as in, three thousand miles away) so I went with blackstrap molasses as Jason suggested, which is stronger than the light molasses that’s normally used in baking. It’s darker and a lot more bitter.
Since it’s an adults-only cake, if you want to make it extra grown-up, after it’s baked and cooled, you can swaddle the cake in rum-soaked cheesecloth or étamine (muslin cloth), as I did, and let it mellow for a few weeks where it gets better and better. And better. I was hoping to save mine for the holidays but I’ve been lopping off slices every few days – okay, every day – so will give it another go. It’s worth returning to.
For the dried fruit
- 1/2 cup (50g) dried unsweetened (sweet or sour) cherries
- 1/3 cup (90g) prunes, pitted and diced
- 1/2 cup (80g) raisins
- 1/2 cup (90g) candied orange or lemon peel, diced
- 1/4 cup (35g) dried currants
- 4-5 tablespoons (60-75ml) dark rum
For the cake
- 1 cup (140g) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder, preferably aluminum-free
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 4 ounces (115g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup (155g) packed dark brown sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon aromatic bitters, (optional)
- 1/4 cup (60ml) blackstrap molasses, (regular molasses can also be used)
- 3/4 cup (80g) walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
- 1/3 cup (80ml) dark rum, for aging the cake, plus more if desired
- Mix the dried cherries, prunes, raisins, candied orange peel, and currants in a jar. Pour 4 tablespoons of rum over the fruit. If they aren't covered with rum, or if your fruits are on the dry side, add the additional tablespoon. Cover the jar, shake it and let the fruit sit for at least 24 hours or up to one week. (Although you can let it sit for longer.)
- To make the cake, preheat the oven to 300ºF (150ºC.) Butter an 8 1/2- to 9-inch (23cm) loaf pan. For extra insurance, you can line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper.
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a small bowl. Set aside.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or by hand in a large bowl using a spatula, beat the butter and brown sugar on high speed for 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. On low speed, add the eggs one at a time, stopping the mixer after adding each egg to scrape down the sides.
- Stir in the vanilla, aromatic bitters (if using) and molasses. The batter may appear a bit curdled. If so, beat it on high speed for a few minutes which will aerate it and bring it back together. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the flour mixture by hand, mixing it only until the dry ingredients are abotu three-quarters combined. Fold in the rum-soaked fruits (they should have soaked up most or all of the rum; if there is a small amount of rum in the jar, like a tablespoon or less, add that to the batter, too) as well as the walnuts and stir just until combined but do not overmix.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared loaf pan, smooth the top, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour, 15 minutes. (The original recipe said 1 hour, 45 minutes, but mine was done sooner, which may be because my loaf pan is narrower and higher than a typical loaf pan.) Remove from the oven and use a toothpick to poke about 50 holes in the top. Pour the 1/3 cup of rum all over the cake. Let the cake cool completely.