Diasporan daughter, raking the soil for a map, a glint of my mama’s gold, a bone to call my own.

—Desiree C. Bailey, “Guesswork”

It can take up to a year to make a good Jamaican black cake. The fruit should be soaked in wine and rum for at least six months, then combined with creamed butter, sugar, spices, and gravy browning (burned sugar) before being baked and repeatedly doused in the rum and wine mixture. The result is a cake that is rich, velvety, and dense, with aromas of vanilla, almond, nutmeg, and cinnamon. As a child I sat and watched my grandmother beat the butter and sugar until they were white: I’d wake up to the sound of the mixer whizzing, and sneak little tastes of the mixture before she added the rum. This is a cake I made with her many times, but she died before I was old enough to taste it because of the alcohol content.

Mama’s Cake was a staple at weddings and Christmases, as black cakes are, but her particular recipe went with her when she passed. Although I was there on so many mornings, walking sleepy-eyed into the kitchen as she was scooping fruit into the batter, I cannot recall the exact measurements or method. As such, the cake has become a mystery and a myth, something I hear about at family gatherings (“This cake is good, but it’s not Mama’s Cake”), in stories (“Are you sure you don’t remember how to make it, Corrine? You’re the one who would know”), and in my own head as I trawl recipes to stitch together a semblance of what once was. Underneath this searching is the unspeakable loss of our family matriarch, and a grief that has not subsided in the almost twenty-five years since her death. I was the last person to speak to her before she passed. She was lying in a hospital bed as my mother held the phone to her ear; my voice gently uttered the words “I love you” before I hung up the phone. It rang again a few minutes later and my mother told my father she was gone. Later that night, part of my extended family came to mourn with us, and we ate a chocolate cake I had made for my father’s birthday the day before. As I sat there in my pajamas, I wept: I knew this was the last time we would all be together as we had been. She was the person who held us all together, who cared so deeply for everyone, and who turned strangers into family. We would never be the same.

I am certain that if Mama had lived longer she would have given me the recipe, and the loss of her is magnified by the loss of this inheritance. The recipe could’ve been my only tangible reminder of her, but instead it is one of many pieces of lost knowledge. In my efforts to recreate the cake I have turned to the archives of my family and our collective memory—traces of embodied memory, taste, and sensation—in addition to those of the Jamaican diaspora. In my search I have found the history of Black ingenuity, creativity, and resistance that underpinned Mama’s recipes and the others that came before it, in addition to a sublimated knowledge that has been buried, ignored, and misattributed.

The archive is replete with various absences: the absence of recipes for what we now call “black cake,” in addition to missing names of the people (presumably women) who created it. In the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, the entry on Jamaican black cake notes that it emerged in the eighteenth century as English women began to “darken plum cake with treacle” or molasses (Smith 2007: 251). The cake also appears in the writings of the novelist Lydia Maria Child and the poet Emily Dickinson.1 In The American Frugal Housewife (1833), Child mentions wedding cake made with molasses, noting that “a little molasses makes it dark colored, which is desirable” (72); Emily Dickinson’s 1883 “manuscript recipe” for black cake appears as lines of poetry, “2 Nutmegs. / 5 teaspoons / Cloves – Mace – / Cinnamon –” (1). Yet all of these accounts, some published around the time slavery was abolished in Jamaica, obscure the labor of black cake’s production. The scant reference to colonial commodity obscures the unnamed, uncredited Black cooks who likely developed the recipe, and the exploited laborers who grew, cultivated, and processed the necessary ingredients. They have been disappeared, but they speak to me like Paule Marshall’s kitchen poets. While Child and Dickinson are recognizable poets and authors, the kitchen poets of Marshall’s family, and indeed my own, do not “look like poets” or “do what poets were supposed to do” (24); yet they give us the poetry of their survival, which sometimes takes the shape of a recipe. I imagine my grandmother slipping her life lessons into the batter just as the kitchen poets in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! slip poems into soup (1995: 218). The form of the recipe is a repository of what was past, is present, and will be in the future, something that can never be complete because of what has come before it, and what will come after it.2

The absence of “black cake” in the Jamaican cooking archive is significant because the cake appears under multiple changing names. Although Dickinson uses the name “Jamaican Black Cake” in her 1883 manuscript recipe, a fact that definitely bears more researching for its potential connection to histories of racialization, it appears elsewhere as Christmas pudding or Christmas cake, or is absent altogether. Caroline Sullivan’s The Jamaica Cookery Book (1893), the first book on native cookery in Jamaica (1893: iii), includes recipes for coffee cakes, orange cakes, and lemon and cocoanut [sic] cakes, but there’s no mention of black cake or plum pudding. In the first Jamaican recipe book, the absence of black cake/plum pudding/Christmas pudding is significant, especially since Dickinson’s recipe was published only ten years before Sullivan’s volume. I don’t know why it isn’t there.

Almost one hundred years later, the cake appears in Norma Benghiat’s Traditional Jamaican Cookery (1985), as “Christmas Pudding,” alongside a brief history of the cake’s development. Benghiat roots black cake in resistance, as she describes the cake’s association with the Jonkunoo Parade, a yearly celebration during which enslaved people “lived in a world of make-believe,” where they could mock their enslavers and imagine otherwise worlds (1985: 148). Benghiat connects her personal memories of the Junkunoo Parade progressing down her street as a child, and the mixed excitement and fear she felt, while noting the important legacy of this celebration: Christmas is a special time for Caribbean descendants of enslaved Africans, just as it was for our ancestors (1985: 148). Black cake appears in this context of resistance because it is a food that has been recuperated, and Benghiat notes that the Christmas pudding was part of the “masters’ Christmas fare,” but inaccessible to those who made it (1985: 148). As Benghiat connects black cake to the subverted racialized power dynamics of Junkunoo, she situates the contemporary making and eating of Christmas pudding/cake as a reclamation of what was stolen. The cake is now part of a Christmas “ritual” that is commonplace in Caribbean households, a repeated and sacred act that we were once denied the fruits of. In sharing these local and personal histories, Benghiat gives due credit for labor and creativity that has been erased and marginalized.

As I read Benghiat’s nod to the unseen cooks who developed what is now a global Caribbean tradition, I think of the ways that diaspora requires us to be creative in composing a story with the fragments of the archive.3 In my search for Mama’s Cake I have learned that recipes are a snapshot: they cannot contain the variations and versions of themselves that exist before the recorded document, or those to come. Mama’s Cake was something to be excavated from the soil of our family history, but as I studied Christmas pudding/rum cake/black cake recipes in Jamaican cooking compendiums, I saw the gaps between the names, the ingredients, and the generations. These recipes are records that have been changed and added to, and are only a portion of what exists unrecorded in the memories of bakers across the Caribbean and its diasporas. Although I am reluctant to turn to the future, to focus on the newness of a thing I can construct with memories of my grandmother, it is what I have had to do. Yet, in this shift of focus I can still be guided by the knowledge I do have. I can begin where I know she began—with creamed butter and sugar—and move through the recipe archive to build a cake that honors the voices of a chorus of cooks. Ultimately, my turn to the recipes of the past is also a turn to the future: a way to connect with my grandmother and our ancestors.

As I make my black cake I pour equal parts of me and my grandmother into the batter. I know I don’t do everything as she did, but I also know recipes are not only things to be recovered and protected, but ground to be built upon. Regardless of how it changes or stays the same, of how many times I under-beat the butter or forget to let the eggs come to room temperature, every time I make it we are there together in the kitchen. This year I will make it with my child before carrying it across the Atlantic Ocean to share with our family, whom we haven’t seen for over three years. And Mama will go with us, living in the cake and in our hearts.

Figure 1:

This year’s black cake before icing.

Photograph by Corrine Collins © 2021

Figure 1:

This year’s black cake before icing.

Photograph by Corrine Collins © 2021

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Makes one eight-inch cake

2 cups dried fruit, soaked in a 1:1 ratio of rum and port for at least 2 days (see note)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon rum extract
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons gravy browning or blackstrap molasses
3-1/3 cups of all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Zest of 1 large orange
Half of a fresh nutmeg, grated
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons mixed spice (see note)
6 large eggs, at room temperature

Note: Ideally, you should begin making the cake five and a half months before you want to eat it, but in a pinch you can start two weeks in advance. Soak the raisins, sultanas, cherries, and/or currants and prunes in the mixture of rum and port for up to a year, or two days at minimum.

Note: You can usually find mixed spice in the spice section of the grocery store, but there are many recipes online to make your own. Pumpkin pie spice can be used as a substitute in a pinch.

Preheat the oven to 250°F, and line an eight-inch-round, six-inch-tall loose-bottomed cake pan with parchment paper extending an inch above the sides.

Beat the butter and sugar in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment until it is light and fluffy. While the mixer is running, slowly add rum, vanilla, and almond extracts, and gravy browning or molasses. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, zest, and spices in a separate bowl.

While the mixer is running slowly, add eggs (one at a time) and flour alternately, beating well after each addition. If the batter curdles, your eggs were probably too cold, but the flour will fix this and you should end up with a smooth batter. Mix until just combined.

Strain the soaked fruit over a bowl; reserve the soaking liquid. Since your two-day-soaked fruit will not be soft enough to disintegrate into the cake, put it in the food processor for a few seconds. Pour the fruit into the batter and mix until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 2.25 hours, depending on how hot your oven runs.

While the cake is still warm, spoon some of the leftover liquid from the soaked fruit over the top. Let the cake cool to room temperature in the pan, then wrap it up in greaseproof paper, and store in a cool, dark place for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, remove the greaseproof wrapping, and poke small holes in the cake with a skewer before pouring four tablespoons of soaked fruit liquid on top before re-wrapping. Do this every day for a week.

Keep in a cool, dry place for an additional week before eating as is, or covering with fondant for a celebration. Because of the alcohol content, the cake will keep up to a year in a cool, dry, dark place, or indefinitely in the fridge or freezer.

1.

It also appears in American novelist Laurie Colwin’s cooking memoir Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988) by way of a Vincentian woman named Betty Chambers, who worked for Colwin as a nanny (180–184).

2.

In “Consider the Recipe,” Kyla Wazana Tompkins notes that recipes are never finished, because they “morph across time as foodways are handed down and changed” (2013: 440).

3.

Here I refer to Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation,” a process of creating a narrative from the fragments in the archive while understanding the impossibility of such a task (Hartman 2008: 11).

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