Wherever you travel in the Caribbean, it’s likely you’ll see rum cake on restaurant menus and tempting arrays of packaged rum cakes in gift shops. The appeal is obvious. This is cake with a kick. It’s luscious. It’s almost indestructible in luggage or the mails, and it keeps forever.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana ordered rum cake for their wedding. Marilyn Monroe’s rum cake recipes were found tucked into cookbooks that went to auction after her death. The oldest rum cake companies in the islands, Horton’s in Bermuda and Tortuga in the Cayman Islands, have been making rum cake from secret family recipes for more than 100 years. The newest, Erminie Mathavious’ BVI Rum Confections in Tortola, just went online.
Rum cake isn’t new, but ask what rum cake is and you’ll get a different answer from every Caribbean cook. It may be a light, buttery pound cake soaked in rum-laced sugar syrup. It may be heavy with nuts and rum-soaked fruits, and so dark it’s called black cake. The only common ingredient is rum, so let’s start with that.
Sugar cane was unknown in the Caribbean before Christopher Columbus’ second voyage, when he brought cane shoots from the Canary Islands and stuck them in the rich soil of Hispaniola. It was just a matter of time until someone discovered that leftover cane squeezings fermented in the tropic heat and a new beverage was born.
Some say Ponce de Leon brought a crude form of rum to Florida from Puerto Rico. The daily rum ration was so important to the Royal Navy that anyone found diluting the rum cask was severely punished. Mount Gay rum dates to 1703; by 1733, rum was so popular in the American colonies that a tax on molasses sparked rebellions in New England. It’s said that George Washington, who favored Barbados rum, passed out 28 gallons of the stuff in one political campaign alone.
In a pre-refrigeration era when fish and meat were salted and vegetables were pickled in vinegar, cooks found that rum, too, was a preservative. Cakes were soaked in it. Fruits were thrown into the rum vat and left there for months. Even today, island cooks begin soaking raisins and other dried fruits early in the new year so they’ll be ready for Christmas cakes in December.
Black rum cake, baked with spices and rum-soaked fruit, has been a British Virgin Islands wedding tradition for more than 150 years. Known as the bride’s cake, it’s cut into small bits to be sent to relatives far away and delivered to everyone in the village. Each wedding guest goes home with a tiny box of it and the top layer, kept moist with rum, is saved to be eaten by the couple on each wedding anniversary. It’s also baked at Christmas to be served to carolers.
When you order MaMaw’s Rum Cake for dessert at the Island Thyme Bistro on Salt Cay in the Turks and Caicos Islands, it comes with a scoop of coconut ice cream. Proprietor Porter Williams credits his Kentucky-born grandmother with developing the recipe after tasting rum cakes in the islands. At the Grand Lido Braco Resort and Spa, executive chef Joseph Stephens makes a rich butter cake and flames it with rum. A Trinidadian rum cake recipe calls for rum in a spicy cake without fruit and nuts. It’s served with a creamy coconut sauce. This recipe from St. Vincent and the Grenadines is, however, the most traditional:
BLACK RUM CAKE
Early British settlers would have used port or sherry for the wine in this recipe. Marsala is also a good choice.
1 ½ pounds raisins
1 pound currants
½ pound prunes
½ pound cherries
½ pound mixed peel*
1 bottle mincemeat**
¼ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup strong rum
1 ½ cups wine
1 pound butter
4 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ cup browning***
2 cups sugar
1 cup wine and ½ cup rum to mix and pour over the cakes as soon as they are taken from the oven.
*candied lemon and orange peel
**16- to 20-ounce jar of commercial mincemeat
*** Kitchen Bouquet, Bovril, Gravy Master
Mix the fruit and peel with the 1 ½ cups wine, 2 cups rum and the brown sugar in a glass or earthenware container. Cover and let steep three weeks or longer. To make the cake, cream the butter with the sugar, gradually adding the eggs until the mixture is thick and yellow. Add the fruit mixture and browning. Sift together the flour and baking powder and add to the wet mixture. Mix until everything is evenly moistened. Line baking tins with two layers of greased waxed paper. Fill pans to within one inch of the top (cakes rise very little) and bake at 300 degrees 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the cakes. Test with a skewer. When the cake is done, the skewer will come out smooth and dry.
As soon as the cakes are removed from the oven, prick them repeatedly and pour the mixture of rum and wine over them slowly, allowing it to soak in. Let cakes stay in the pans for 3 to 4 days, then turn them out and, if you like, frost them.
Janet Groene is an expert in eating on the go. Her books include Fantastic Discounts and Deals for Anyone Over 50, Cooking Aboard Your RV and Open Road Caribbean Guide.