A LITTLE LIKE GEORGE ARCHER’S MOM USED TO MAKE
Caribbean Black Cake — Trinidad
For George Archer, Caribbean black cake brings back memories of Christmas in Mayaro, the fishing town on Trinidad’s east coast where he spent his first 21 years. “People used to go parang-ing. That means a group of neighbours would drop in with guitars, and sing Spanish Christmas songs. You provided the food. For us, it was sliced ham and my mother’s black cake – and the rum,” recalled Archer.
Every Christmas, Archer bakes a black cake. If it gets eaten too quickly, he bakes a second. His wife Jane, an accomplished cook, pitches in. “The first time I tried to make it, I started without her, but I needed her assistance,” Archer admitted.
Archer taught economics for nearly thirty years at Marianopolis College, before moving on to become dean of technology programs at Vanier College. Following his 2009 retirement, he continued doing contract work in education until 2018. Now 76, Archer could pass for a decade younger. “It’s Oil of Olay – with coconut milk,” he joked.
Archer came to Montreal in 1965 to study classics at McGill University. His studies were interrupted when his mother died. Later, while in New York, he met veterans from the Vietnam war. “My vision of American foreign policy changed. I realized I knew nothing about economics and politics,” he said.
So Archer returned to McGill to study economics. Even after all these years, he hasn’t gotten used to Montreal winters. “The first winter isn’t the worst. You’re new, so you dress warmly,” he said.
Black cake makes winter more bearable — even if Archer’s version isn’t quite the same as his mother’s. He also misses the fresh fish he grew up eating, and his mother’s braised meat. Because there was no efficient refrigeration, his mother loaded up on meat at the local market on Saturdays, then browned it to last the week.
Despite its cold winters, Canada has been good to Archer. “I never really experienced overt racism in Canada,” Archer said. But he describes a 1969 race-related riot at Sir George Williams College (now Concordia) as “a big moment for all of us. Most of the people in the black community didn’t support the actions, but they supported the point,” he said.
Archer also remembers spending time at Trinidad and Tobago House, a Park Avenue community centre. “At the time, many of the local black high school students had not been strong students. My friends and I were a positive influence. For many of those kids, it was the first time they saw there were people like them in university, going on to other things,” Archer recalled.
Archer has paid close attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. “Every generation fights its battles and moves things on,” he said. In the last few months, Archer has observed a marked increase in diversity in printed matter and on-line. “I recently noticed recipes from Africa and the Caribbean in Bon Appetit magazine. If they need a black cake recipe, any Caribbean grandma would be happy to oblige,” he said.
Rum-Soaked Caribbean Black Cake
Makes three 9-inch cakes
RUM-SOAKED DRIED FRUIT
- 1½ cup (210 grams) chopped, pitted prunes
- 1 cup (210 grams) currants
- 1 cup (210 grams) raisins
- 80 grams maraschino cherries
- 50 grams candied citrus peel
- 1 ½ cups dark rum
- ¼ water
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 9 eggs
- zest of one lemon
- zest of one orange
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 teaspoons Angostura Bitters
- 1 pound (454 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 pound (454 grams) brown sugar
- 2 ½ cups (325 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 ½ pounds (3 cups) rum-soaked fruit paste
- ½ cup (120 ml) cherry brandy
- ½ cup (120 ml) dark rum
PREPARING DRIED FRUIT
Fruit should be thoroughly mixed and soaked in rum overnight, preferably longer. In the Caribbean, folks often soak the fruit for several months, maintaining a steady supply of rum-soaked fruit ready for use. Add rum as the mixture absorbs it.
When you are ready to bake, place the rum-saturated fruit in a food processor and pulse into a rough paste, making sure that some of the fruit remains intact. If needed, add more rum to thin it out. The processed fruit should have a consistency of thick paste.
For this recipe, you will need 3 cups of rum-soaked fruit.
Just before making the cake batter, make the browning.
Add the sugar to a small nonstick saucepan and heat over medium-high heat. Let the sugar caramelize and turn a dark brown. Carefully pour in the water (it will steam) and stir vigorously to incorporate. Let the syrup remain in the saucepan as you make the cake batter. If it hardens too much before using, bring it back to liquid form by reheating.
PREPARING CAKE BATTER
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Grease three 9-inch round cake pans.
Crack eggs into a bowl. Add lemon zest, orange zest, vanilla extract, almond extract, and Angostura Bitters. Whisk until well combined.
In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg mixture, a little at a time.
In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. Set aside.
With the mixer running, add ⅓ of the flour mixture, then ½ of the fruit paste, then another ⅓ of the flour. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the remaining fruit paste and flour.
Add the browning a little at a time until the desired color is achieved. The amount added will determine the color of the cake: from light brown, dark brown to black. Fold quickly to incorporate so the syrup doesn’t harden.
Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pans.
Bake at 350 degrees F for one hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cakes comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool on a wire rack.
While the cake is baking, make the soaking liquid: In a liquid measuring cup or small bowl, combine the rum and cherry brandy.
Let the cakes cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the pans. Slowly pour the soaking liquid over each of the cakes, a little at a time, allowing it to soak in. (Reserve about ¼ cup for serving.) Let the cakes cool completely in the pans.
Brush with more of the soaking liquid before slicing and serving.
You can pre-order your edition by writing to:
The Secret is in the Sauce! is sponsored by Canadian Heritage’s Official Languages Program.