Forget fruitcake – black cake should be the flavor of the season

When you grow up poor on projects, like I did, you can’t afford not to eat food that doesn’t look appealing. In my early years, I stuffed myself with powdered eggs, bologna, and the much-maligned government cheese.

But that government food tasted like my uncle’s succulent ribs compared to one of the worst inventions I’ve ever had: fruitcake.

There is nothing wrong with the cake itself. Contains flour, butter, eggs and sugar, a standard cake recipe. It’s dried fruits like apricots, raisins, figs or anything else that turns me off.

At its best, a fruitcake is a mix of things that make you ask, “Why?” As in, “Why would anyone bake this, let alone eat it?”

Fortunately, the Afro-Caribbeans created a different type of fruitcake that looks and tastes good. While fruit cake contains pieces of dried fruit, black cake soaks the fruit in alcohol for a long time and then mixes it together.

Let’s explore the difference between fruit cake and black cake.

black cake fruit cake festive season
Photo: Getty Images

fruit cake

Fruitcake dates back to Roman times. According to a story told on PBS, the Romans made the cake with a mixture of dried fruit, honey, barley and wine, and it became a staple food for starving soldiers. European settlers brought fruitcakes to America.

For reasons that still baffle me, the fruitcake took off. Bakeries began sending fruitcakes through the mail in 1913, according to National Calendar Day. In 1928, the USDA recommended formulas and recipes for Christmas fruitcakes. The phrase “pecan like a fruitcake” entered the American lexicon in the 1920s or 1930s, a reference to the large number of nuts in the cake.

The USDA also recognizes the love-it-hate-it perception of fruitcake. “Whether you love or loathe the festive fruitcake, nothing would be possible without the farmers who produce the ingredients needed to enjoy (or make fun of) the long-standing Christmas tradition,” the organization notes.

It’s also hard to kill a fruitcake. It can last a month at room temperature, four months in the refrigerator, and a year in the freezer. The duration of fruitcakes could also explain their popularity in the early 20th century. It took a long time to deliver an item by train or horse, and a fruitcake kept fresh.

Speaking of keeping cool, conservators at the Antarctic Heritage Trust found a 106-year-old fruitcake in Cape Adare. “Although the tin was in poor condition, the cake itself looked and smelled (almost) edible,” the trust said.

Thanks but no. Please pass the government cheese.

Make this holiday extra special by baking your own bread

B.missing cake

A century-old black cake may exist somewhere. According to, the predecessor to black cake, plum pudding, dates back to the 15th century. Oliver Cromwell, the English politician, for a time banned plum pudding because he considered it a symbol of paganism. In the early 18th century, after the Crown had regained the throne, King George I served plum pudding at Christmas dinner and it became an English staple.

The British brought plum pudding to the Caribbean, and over time, the islanders added a different twist to the Christmas treat.

The most famous black cake recipe came from an unlikely source. Poet Emily Dickinson sent her black cake recipe to a friend of hers in 1863, and cooks around the world have tried to make it like Dickinson did. Most adjust it, but you can see the recipe for it on the Harvard Library website.

Trinidad’s black cake is the recipe you’ll see most often, though they’re all reasonably close. Types of fruit and alcoholic beverages vary, with some preferring currants, figs, and dates to prunes, raisins, and apricots. You can use any combination of fruits you want.

It would be better if you had a blender and plenty of time. A long time.

The macaroni and cheese debate returns: creamy, baked or with breadcrumbs?

Black cake gives new meaning to the word patience, as cooks often macerate, or soak, the fruit in rum and red wine or brandy for months or even a year. Seasoned black cake cooks roll their eyes at recipes that call for soaking the fruit for a week. The alcohol brings out the flavor of the fruit and gives the cake a richer flavor, so a week is not long enough.

The first time I ate black cake, I mistook it for a chocolate cake because it looked alike. But it didn’t taste like anything like it, in a good way. I started researching the history of black cake, and upon learning that it is a cousin of fruitcake, I asked myself:

“Where have you been all my life?”

Black cake is a great alternative to fruitcake. So you’ll need to start soaking those dried fruits right now, for next year.


While I typically drop a recipe of my own, I do like the following black cake recipes, though I do soak the fruit for at least three months, which is still too short for some purists.

That said, if you want to give it a try this holiday season, this recipe found in the New York Times uses prunes, raisins, and currants, and has a short soak time of 48 hours. Another variation of the Jamaican black cake uses port wine and dark rum.

Do you expect a big crowd? The Washington Post published Emily Dickinson’s recipe for black cake, a version that few people try because it is huge and serves 60 people.

ray marcano

Ray Marcano is a longtime award-winning journalist who has written and edited for some of the country’s most prominent media brands. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer jury member, and a Fulbright scholar.

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