Global Gourmet

TV chef and author Jonathan Phang shares his Christmas past

Jonathan Phang Christmas

Whenever I hear the word Christmas I think of three things, pepperpot, garlic pork and black cake. Not gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

Most of my happiest memories are of Christmas. The joy of decorating the tree and arguing with my siblings over whom would place my grandmother’s angel on the top of it. Intoxicating smells of festive foods that my mum prepared only once a year, and smiling faces of my once enormous family, most of whose company I now mourn.

One particular year, when I was about four or five a large parcel arrived by special delivery from my maternal grandmother in Guyana. The box was covered in colourful stamps depicting exotic birds and flora and fauna indigenous to the Caribbean. I was beside myself with anticipation and excitement, presuming that the box was full of gifts for me.

My brother, sister and I followed mum into the kitchen and watched avidly as she carefully opened the large box and revealed an ornate circular tin. The pretty, but distressed, tin was decorated in pastel shades of coral and mint, with a golden-filigreed trim around its circumference. As mum removed the lid our eager eyes widened with anticipation, expecting to discover a plethora of treasures.

However, our expectations were abruptly thwarted on discovering that the tin contained nothing more than a cake. An air of disappointment loomed, visible on all faces apart from that of my mother’s, whose curious expression lay somewhere between happiness, sadness and grief.

Oblivious to her surroundings, she removed the lid of the tin and gazed at the white cake that lay cushioned on top of discoloured wax paper, majestically decorated with royal icing adornments.
She shut her eyes, held the tin to her face and inhaled. The aromas of her own childhood Christmas memories flooded her heart and tears rolled down her cheek. For a brief moment she felt the warmth of her mother’s embrace and she believed that she was home.

I was deflated and felt let down by the grandmother I was yet to meet. As my disappointment waned, the heady alcoholic aroma of the cake struck me and I became intrigued.

By instinct, mum’s eyes opened at that precise second. She glared at us, slammed the tin shut and with a wagging finger exclaimed, “Do not even think of going anywhere near this tin until Christmas Day…You’ll be in big trouble if you do! And I mean it!”

Mum hid the tin and my brother and I were determined to find it. Later that very same day, after a thorough search of the upstairs of our home, my brother pushed me into the cupboard under the stairs. Through a smothering thicket of dark winter coats, my forehead popped through to the back and banged into a shelf. I raised my eyes and spotted the tin, my arms raised to grab it, “It’s here. I’ve found it!” I yelled.

My brother yanked me back through the woollen jungle and said, ‘Well, now we know where it is, we should do as we were told and leave it alone.” I felt dazed and confused and ready for a row. As my forehead swelled and my anger raged, something told me to leave the subject well alone.
There was something about the intense sincerity in our mother’s tender expression, which touched our hearts and for the first time in our young lives, we felt honour bound to obey her wishes.

Christmas Day meant “open house” in Worton Way. Each year our modest suburban semi would burst at the seams, full with relatives, friends and lost souls with nowhere else to go. Whoever came, shared what we had and never left hungry. My mother worked tirelessly to ensure that she and my father could “save face” and never be accused of under catering.

When Christmas day finally arrived that year I was given my first taste of what my mother described as “the real Guyanese black cake. The best in the Caribbean!” I was completely unimpressed and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I was slightly scared of the cake’s deep black colour and the soggy alcohol soaked texture. Fragments of mixed fruits got stuck between my teeth and the marzipan beneath the royal icing stuck to the roof of my mouth. I sought solace through the familiar and sucked on Quality Street toffees in order to get rid of the taste of the black cake.

My mother cut up her mother’s cake into bite size pieces, and arranged them neatly on a silver tray, etched with impressions of Guyana’s most famous landmarks. Being the youngest (so technically the cutest) the tray was thrust into my hands and I was instructed to smile and to offer the cake to absolutely everyone. I watched in awe as our guests sank their teeth into the festive treat. The chatter in the room hushed with contended sighs of pleasure and pensive reflection. The flavours of the homeland and life that our family left behind filled them with nostalgia and in some cases regret.

However, before long the festivities resumed and raucous laughter could be heard from almost a block away. We danced the night away to the beat of Trinidadian Calypsos, The Sandpipers and other various reggae artists from the times.

Due to political unrest my maternal grandparents Cyril and Maude moved to the UK in early 1970’s. At that time Citizens of the new Co–operative Republic of Guyana were not allowed to leave their country with more than fifteen Guyanese dollars in their pockets. My grandparents landed into the UK, on a cold winter’s day with few possessions and their thirty dollars.

England too was suffering from political unrest, high inflation, miners strikes, the “three day week” and power cuts.

Maude, however, was past caring about politics and was just thrilled to be re-united with her daughter and excited to spend time with her grandchildren. Mother and daughter spent many hours together in the kitchen, preparing and sharing each other’s recipes, catching up on lost time and discovering the women that they had become.

As Christmas approached, during that winter of discontent, granny decided that it was time to teach mum how to make black cake. Maude, much to her sadness, had not been present at any of her four children’s weddings. She deeply regretted not being able to make black cakes for her two daughters on their wedding days and had spent many lonely Christmases without her children that she loved so deeply. Now with no possessions to her name, this symbolic recipe was literally her only legacy. The two women stood face to face and prepared the cake in unison. Eventually the cakes were placed onto the middle shelf of the oven on a low heat, with the timer set for one and half hours, leaving plenty of time to do the school run. Mum and granny were in high spirits at the school gates that day and we all reached home excited to see fruits of their labour. I ran through the front door and reached for the lights switch. The house remained dark and the hallway felt cold, there was no comforting smell of baking. There was a power cut and the cakes were ruined. Both women were more disappointed than I could ever imagine.

Maude had died by the following Christmas and I believe her last days to be amongst her happiest in her short life. Mum spent the rest of her life trying to cook as well as granny and she although she became a very accomplished cook, she refused to believe that her black cake was ever as good as her mother’s. Her proudest culinary moments were watching her own son and daughter cutting into the cakes that she had lovingly prepared for them on their wedding days.

The following recipe is as close as I can get to my mother’s, as she left no formal recipe for it just a few scribbles, on a stained note pad. However, the key to a truly successful black cake is trial and error, mixed with a mother’s love.

CARIBBEAN BLACK CAKE

INGREDIENTS

3 eggs
4oz/114g butter lightly salted
5oz/150g golden caster sugar
4oz/114g flour
1heaped tsp baking powder
1tsp mixed spice
12oz/ 340g mixed fruit
4oz/114g maraschino cherries (drained) or glace
2tsp Caribbean mixed essence
1tsp vanilla extract
2 tablespoons of burnt sugar or browning
1-½ cups of Rum
1-½ cups of Cherry Brandy

METHOD

Step one – prepare the fruit:

Combine the mixed fruit and cherries and mix well. Remove a quarter of the fruit and set aside. Place the remaining fruit in a food processor and add 1 cup of rum, 1 cup of cherry brandy and 1 teaspoon of Caribbean mixed essence. Pulse the fruit into a coarse puree. Add the remaining quarter of fruit and pulse twice.
Pour the fruit into an airtight jar and set aside in a cool dark place for at least a week or up to a year (the longer the better).

Step two – make the burnt sugar syrup:

Heat two cups of Demerara sugar over a low heat until melted.
Remove from the heat and gradually add once cup of boiling water whilst slowly stirring. Return the saucepan to the heat and continue to cook for a further five minutes. The syrup should be thin and black. The syrup will thicken when cooled to the consistency of molasses.
Pour into a glass jar and cool before use.

Step three – make the cake batter:

In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until soft and pale.
Add the eggs one at a time and combine well. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix into a smooth batter. Add the mixed spice, vanilla extract and Caribbean mixed essence and stir.
With a slotted spoon, drain the fruit and add a spoonful at a time and mix well.
Lastly add the burnt sugar and mix well. The batter should be dark brown, but add more syrup of necessary.

Pre- heat the oven to 170 degrees. Grease and line a spring form cake tin .The greaseproof paper should be three inched higher than the top of the tin.

Bake the cake on the middle shelf of the oven for approximately one and a half hours. To test if the cake is cooked, stick a wooden skewer (or cocktail stick) in to the centre of the cake, if it come out clean the cake is ready.

Remove the cake from the oven and leave to cool in the tin. With a wooden skewer make several holes over the top of the cake. Feed the cake by spooning tablespoons of Rum and Cherry Brandy (approximately half a cup of each) over the top of the cake. Wrap the top of the cake with greaseproof paper, cover in foil and leave for 24 hours for the alcohol to be absorbed before serving.

Cover with a liberal layer of marzipan and decorate with royal icing.

Jonathan Phang Christmas

Find out more about Jonathan here.

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