I remember the year I ate half of the entire black cake by myself. It had been an annual tradition for my mother’s coworker, who was also from Jamaica, to gift us the dessert to share with the rest of our family over the holidays. At 14, I certainly had the good judgment to know that eating half a cake wasn’t the right thing to do. For as long as I could remember, I had always been treated to a small wedge of the alcohol-infused delight right after the main course. But that year, I effectively ruined Christmas—and I admit that the decision to do so was wholly worth it. An entire black cake was unguarded on the kitchen counter, and as an ardent lover of the classic Caribbean dessert, I felt it would have been a disservice to its beauty not to indulge (though family members would of course argue otherwise). My mother made me promise never to repeat the incident, and then arranged for our family friend to make me a small cake of my own the following year, and every year after. Since then, no Christmas has been subjected to the wrath of my appetite.
In mine and other Caribbean families, not a year goes by that black cake doesn’t make an appearance at the Christmas dinner table. That table is the gift that keeps on giving, ornamented with a variety of secret family recipes and delectable contributions from whoever’s auntie and someone else’s grandma, everyone engaged in a unified effort to outdo each other and themselves. The almost grain-like texture of the black cake is packed with a dense, moist, and drunken-fruit-laced punch. And paired with sorrel? It’s the peak Caribbean combination. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and the cake never lasts long; it becomes customary to ration smaller and smaller portions in an effort to extend the supply of the dwindling delicacy. But luckily, it’s not just a Christmas dessert, it’s a celebration dessert. And another opportunity to gather always presents itself—a baby shower, graduation, wedding, or just after church—and the beloved black cake will make an appearance. That’s the best thing about it.
How did this slice of Caribbean heaven turn into a celebration staple? As many Caribbean nations were once British colonies, the region’s cuisine continues to be influenced by that history. It is said that black cake’s origins can be traced to Britain’s holiday plum pudding, which contains dried or candied fruits and spices mixed with wine, rum, stout, or some combination of the three. The recipe was later modified by then-enslaved Afro-Caribbean people to include local ingredients. Not to be confused with fruitcake, black cake features similar ingredients (which can vary somewhat across the Caribbean), but its concoction of raisins, prunes, cherries, currants, and dates is blended with molasses and rum. After the cake is finished baking, either wine, sherry, brandy, or additional rum is poured atop the cake before serving, turning it into a heightened, devilishly boozy treat. Another important distinction is black cake’s extensive prep time, which can take up to a year. Yes, you read that right. As soon as a cake is popped into the oven, the prep work for next year’s begins. (In the words of dancehall legend Vybz Kartel, “As one gone, the next one bawn.”) Fruit is placed into a jar with rum and left to soak for 12 whole months. If you’re crunched for time, a few days of soaking are enough to yield a cake with some good flavor, but with a taste nowhere near as intense.
Throughout my childhood, my grandma ensured that her pantry possessed the glass jar that held the batch for next Christmas. Cousins, aunties, uncles, moms, and dads looked forward to her black cake, which would cap off our holiday meal. A silence fell over our house as we savored each bite, mmm-ing with full bellies, closed eyes, and tilted heads: the shared experience of her love translated into a dessert that we’d all have to wait another year to partake in.
Of course, the cake is made and can be purchased throughout the year from select ma and pa Caribbean restaurants, since it’s part of the region’s culinary tradition and a year-round staple that punctuates special occasions. Coated in a sheet of fondant, it becomes a wedding cake. Made without the extra addition of alcohol after baking, it becomes a treat for even the youngest children to enjoy. Cover it in icing and you have yourself a birthday cake. Black cake is a paradox of sorts: despite its laborious process, and flavors dependent on a baker with just the right touch, it’s also dish that revels in its simplicity. It doesn’t beg to be “remixed” or “reimagined” and it doesn’t or prompt any calls for modernity like other dishes are subjected to, and perhaps that’s why it’s revered so much.
Last Christmas, I only managed to get a tiny sliver of a slice that I had brought up to my room to enjoy. My younger cousin made his way beside me, sitting down on my bed with a grin. “Can I have some?” he asked. I obliged, knowing that I was probably in possession of the last bit of this now scarce commodity. I went downstairs to get an extra fork, and by the time I came back upstairs the entire slice had disappeared. I couldn’t help but remember the same cake-related tragedy I had inflicted on my family years ago, and chose in that moment to laugh, because my cousin had reminded me of what I already knew: black cake is irresistible. It’s a Caribbean marker of togetherness, our unique regional delicacy. It reinforces familiar, comforting traditions, and there’s no reason to wait a full year to celebrate that again.