Monday, October 5, 2015

Black Cake: A Caribbean Treat Found in 19th Century America

Black Cake

This recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations.

Original Receipt (Recipe):
3 lbs. flour, 3 lbs sugar, 3 lbs butter, 3 dozen eggs, 2 lbs currants, 4 lbs Raisins, 1 lb. citron, a pint of Brandy, 1/2 oz. cinnamon, 1/4 oz. cloves, 1/4 oz. mace & 3 nutmegs.

Black Cakes are versions of British plum puddings or fruitcakes that emerged in the Caribbean, particularly in Trinidad, and they are served at Christmas, weddings, and other special occasions. Caribbean-made  Black Cakes have traditionally gotten their dark color not just from the dark-colored spices such as cinnamon, mace, and cloves  used in the recipe, or from the dark fruits such as raisins in it, but from the burnt sugar syrup traditionally used in the recipe. Burnt sugar is exactly what it sounds like - you take sugar and cook it in a frying pan until it gets very dark and syrupy.

While Black Cakes made with burnt sugar syrup may be popular in the Caribbean Islands even to this day, recipes for these cakes can also be found going back as far as the 19th century (and quite possibly earlier) in American cookbooks and manuscript recipe collections. These recipes can be found in  Eliza Leslie’s, Seventy-Five Receipts (1828), Lettice Bryan’s, The Kentucky Housewife (1839), Eliza Leslie’s, Directions for Cookery (1840), Elizabeth Lea’s, Domestic Cookery (1869), and in several others that appear in the latter half of the nineteenth-century. 

While traditional island Black Cakes get their dark color from the burnt sugar syrup, 19th century American recipes do not usually use that type of sugar. Instead, plain old white sugar,  brown sugar, and/or molasses were used. These versions of Black Cakes are therefore similar (they do use heavy amounts of dark sweet spices and fruit) but are fundamentally different because they do not use the burnt sugar syrup. Therefore, they could not be equal in flavor to the island varieties. Mrs. Morris's recipe for Black Cake just states "sugar" but does not specify which type. It must be assumed that she meant to use either white sugar or brown sugar. Therefore, these cakes are not quite black, but have more of a dark beige color to them!

All versions of these cakes burst with the flavor of various darkly hued sweet spices such as mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. Dried and/or sugared fruits such as orange and lemon peel, currants, raisins, etc. are crucial to the recipe; a recipe by Lettice Bryan in The Kentucky Housewife (1839) even contains whortleberries! 

Additionally, while most island versions of these cakes require that the fruits be soaked in spirits such as brandy, port, or rum for days before the cake is to be made, the 19th century American recipes do not seem to include this direction.  Instead, these recipes usually give instructions to dredge un-soaked fruit in flour just prior to adding it to the cake batter. Likewise, Mrs. Morris's recipe does include brandy but like her contemporaries she does not specify pre-soaking the fruit; also, the amount of brandy, one pint for 7 pounds of fruit, does not seem to be enough for the pre-soaking method, so this version of Black Cake is clearly not as potent as the more traditional island versions.

Anyway you make it, Black Cake is a rich, spice-laden, and flavorful cake you can enjoy anytime, preferably with a cup of tea and a good book!

Modern Recipe Adaptation:
Makes 1 10" Round Cake

1 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
4 Teaspoons Ground Cinnamon (Ceylon)
1 1/2 Teaspoons Grated Nutmeg
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Cloves
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Mace
1 Pound Mixed Dried or Candied Fruits (Currants, Raisins, Citron, Pear, Apple, Apricots, etc); Make sure all of the fruit is coarsely chopped.
1/2 Pound Butter, Softened
1 Cup White or Brown Sugar
6 Large Eggs
1/4 Cup Brandy

  1. Heat the oven to 375ยบ F.
  2. Grease a 10" round springform pan and set in on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and spices, and then stir in the fruit. Set aside.
  4. In a separate large bowl, mix together the butter and sugar (you can use an electric mixer for this). Add the eggs two at a time, beating after each addition. Then, add the brandy and beat until well-blended, about 1-2 minutes.
  5. Add the flour mixture to the wet mixture and mix until the flour is all absorbed and the fruit is well distributed throughout the batter. The batter will be thick.
  6. Spoon the batter into the prepared baking pan.
  7. Bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
  8. Let cool for 10 minutes and then remove the cake from the pan.
  9. Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream, ice cream, royal icing, a sweetened cream cheese (honey pecan or pumpkin work well), or try Georgian Wine Cream for an historically inspired topping.


  1. This looks and sounds delicious! When is your cookbook to be available? What is the title? I look forward to that!

  2. I hope you can get a chance to make it soon. As for the book, I have no idea when it will be published but the goal is within the next 18 months or so; it will depend on how long it takes to test the recipes. The working title right now is very 19th century inspired: MRS. MORRIS’S COMPENDIUM OF
    USEFUL COOKERY AND MEDICINAL RECIPES: 19th Century Recipes from the Manuscript of Baltimore’s Mrs. Ann Maria Morris, with an Introduction About Mrs. Morris and Selected Recipes Adapted for Today’s Cooks

    Until publication, you can enjoy the recipes I test on this blog. Thanks for reading!


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