Sugar and spice

West Indian goodies bring Christmas joy to Franka Philip

Fruit cake, more commonly known as black cake. Photograph by Shirley BahadurPastelles, a popular Christmas staple. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

You know it’s Christmas in Trinidad when you start smelling fresh paint, hearing parang music on the radio and seeing shoppers crowd maniacally through the streets of Port of Spain.

Growing up, I always looked forward to Christmas Eve just to see my father perform the ritual of cooking the ham. He would bring home a ham leg that my mother studded with cloves, while he prepared a fire over which would eventually sit a huge biscuit tin filled with water, seasoning and of course, the ham. The wait for a slice always seemed like an eternity, but it was well worth it.

In my time working as a journalist back home, the weeks preceding Christmas were a blur of Christmas parties, and that usually meant having Christmas delicacies of varying quality, like pastelles and sorrel. Pastelles are meat-filled cornmeal pies similar to empañadas that speak to the Spanish influence in Trinidadian culture.

If pastelles are ubiquitous in Trinidadian Christmas, then the same can be said about the mince pie and Christmas in England. Like many non-Brits, when I first heard about mince pies, I thought they were meat pies, but they aren’t. Mince is actually a spiced fruit-based filling made from dried fruit like raisins, currants, glacé cherries, apricots and candied peel.

A well-made mince pie is an absolute delight, especially if it’s served warm with a dollop of ice cream, but unfortunately, there are times when you get the industrial-strength pie—huge, dry crusty things with over-sweet filling.

Christmas in the UK took a bit of getting used to and it had nothing to do with the cold. I missed hearing parang on the radio, the endless stream of pastelles and sorrel, I didn’t like the raw commercialism that seems to dominate the festivities here and I couldn’t get my head around the odd vegetables like Brussels sprouts and celeriac.

In order to make Christmas feel like home, I usually spend Christmas Day with some of my closest Trini friends. At first, we tried to make the menu as Trini as possible with macaroni pie and callaloo as well as turkey and ham. One year there was an attempt at pastelles, but a friend (who shall remain nameless) tried using cornflour instead of cornmeal. It was comical, to say the least.

Over the years, I became accustomed to the odd vegetables and began to add more English ingredients to the Christmas Day menu. Then when I discovered game—as in venison, rabbit, pheasant etc—a whole new world had opened up, because neither my friends nor I particularly liked turkey, so game was a welcome alternative.

About three years ago, I was determined to go all-out and make the Christmas menu particularly special. My inspiration came from Delia Smith, a cook known as the English Martha Stewart. That year, she published a special one-off magazine called Delia’s Complete Christmas, which was a step-by-step guide to a disaster-free Christmas. I was especially intrigued by the “Christmas Easy” menu plan that gave recipe ideas and meal plans for the period from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve.

So armed with Delia’s magazine and a few other excellent Christmas-themed food magazines, I prepared a menu that was quite international.

Some of my favourite dishes over that holiday period included spicy mussels (cooked with ginger, tamarind paste, coriander and a touch of curry powder), mushroom and onion tarts with parsley butter shallots, Stilton and potato dauphinoise, venison Wellington (loin of venison baked in puff pastry) and good old Trini-style saltfish buljol.

Since then, I haven’t had the enthusiasm to do such heavy-duty cooking over Christmas, but I do try to make at least one special delicacy for the holidays. Last Christmas, it was pastelles, but instead of using pork or beef as filling, I used minced venison in the batch for my meat-loving friends and soya mince for the vegetarians. The result wasn’t perfect, but my friends gobbled them up, so they couldn’t have been half bad.

he one thing that I do make every Christmas is a boozy, fruit-laden black cake, because I don’t feel it’s Christmas unless I have a few slices. My mother makes the best black cakes in the world and because she makes it look so easy, I was lulled into believing that by simply using her recipe, I’d make the world’s second best black cake.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I haven’t had a cake-making disaster on the epic scale that Donna Yawching describes elsewhere in this month’s Beat, but I have made a few howlers. I feel most embarrassed about the pots that ended up in the bin after I ruined them trying to make the syrupy burnt-sugar browning that gives the cake its colour and flavour.

I thought my mother used to simply put sugar into a pan and heat it until it became the colour of deep caramel, but as I’ve discovered, this process requires the fine balancing of water to sugar, and oodles of patience. Otherwise the result is a thick layer of burnt sugar in the pot that looks and feels like hardened asphalt.

When I didn’t own an electric mixer, the creaming of butter and sugar took place by hand. This was obviously quite tiring but strangely enjoyable, as I loved seeing the gradual transformation of the gritty butter and sugar mixture into a smooth batter.

However, last year I came across a recipe for black Christmas cake by artisan baker Dan Lepard that’s easy and every bit as tasty as Mummy’s traditional version. Lepard’s method saves a lot of time because it doesn’t involve a creaming process and it’s really easy.

No decisions have been made about the Christmas menu as yet, but the idea of the three-bird roast (a trifecta of pheasant stuffed into a duck that’s stuffed into a goose), served up along with a spicy goat dish, does sound appealing.

But whatever is served in the main course, there will certainly be black cake with generous lashings of crème anglais served for dessert.

Here’s Dan Lepard’s recipe for Christmas cake. It’s easy and definitely worth a try.

Recipe: Dan Lepard’s black Christmas cake

250g currants
150g prunes, chopped in quarters
125g dark raisins
Grated zest of 2 oranges
200g glace cherries
500ml Guinness (or ale)
200g unsalted butter
1 tsp each ground cinnamon, mace, clove and nutmeg
200g muscovado sugar
175g treacle
2 eggs
200g spelt or other wholemeal flour
1 tsp baking powder

Method

1. Combine the dried fruit, zest and cherries in a bowl.
2. Slowly bring the stout to a boil in a large saucepan, then simmer for 15 minutes until reduced to 150ml.
3. In another saucepan, melt the butter, then simmer until it stops spluttering and the bits on the bottom begin to turn golden.
4. Remove from the heat, stir in the spices and leave to cool.
5. Add the sugar to the stout pot, heat until dissolved, then pour into the butter pan.
6. Whisk until the buttery sediment dissolves into the liquid, then beat in the treacle and pour over the fruit in the bowl.
7. Beat the eggs and stir them through the fruit.
8. Sift the flour and baking powder together, and beat into the mixture.
9. Cut three discs and strips of baking parchment to line the base and sides of a round 20cm tin, tip in the mixture and cover loosely with foil.
10. Bake for an hour at 170C/ 325F/gas mark 3, remove the foil and bake at 140C/275F/ gas mark 1 for a further 45 minutes to an hour, until a skewer inserted comes out clean.
11. Pour generous amount of rum or sherry over the cake while still warm, and leave to cool before serving.