In Jamaica, Christmas is a special time of year. It’s a time to paint the house, fix up the garden, replace the curtains, and, of course, eat some black cake and drink a little sorrel.
Here’s a traditional Christmas song!
When I began my research on sorrel I was a little confused. The drink is a punch made from sorrel and rum, but all of my books said that sorrel was a green plant that’s native to Europe and tastes bitter. “How could that possibly make a tasty drink?” I asked myself. The reality is, it can’t. The sorrel that’s drunk in Jamaica is made from Jamaican sorrel. Doy.
Jamaican sorrel is actually hibiscus sabdariffa, a bright, red, tart, and aromatic fleshy type of hibiscus flower. The drink is made from the calyx, which encases the bloom before it opens, keeping it protected. The plant goes by several names: Guinea sorrel, red sorrel, Jamaican sorrel, flor de Jamaica (Jamaica flower), and, most commonly, roselle. It’s native to West Africa and was most likely brought over by slaves of French and British settlers in the 1600’s.
The roselle plant can grow to be 3 to 5 feet long and are naturally perennial, but it’s grown as an annual and propagated from seed. The stalk and leaves of the plant can range from dark green to a reddish color and the flowers are a creamy white or pale yellow. It’s related to okra.
The flowers and calyx can be used fresh or dried, or rehydrated and cooked with other ingredients. It’s a good source of vitamin C, phenolic antioxidants, and pectin. In food stores, the dried flowers are labeled as Jamaica flowers, roselle, or hibiscus flowers. It’s better to buy flowers that are brightly colored since that indicates fuller flavor. Dull or dark flowers are older and have less flavor. If stored in airtight containers, the flowers are usable for up to a year. When brewed as a beverage, it lends a sour-sweet flavor and a bright red color.
Roselle has a high acidity, so it’s necessary to use a non-reactive container, such as a glass or stainless steel bowl, when using them in a recipe. The calyx, which is used to make the drink, can also be used to make sauces, jellies, preserves, or chutneys. In the US, it’s used in Hawaiian Punch and red herbal teas for color. Its pigments are anthocyanins.
To make the drink, calyx from the plant are steeped in water for several days with orange peel, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, sugar, and rum.
Accompanying the sorrel is black cake, which also goes by several names. It may be referred to as rum cake or just Christmas cake. Black cake is a descendent of English plum pudding, which was brought to the island by English settlers in the 1700’s.
Black cake was pretty much born out of the British desire for sugar. Black cake is made with brown sugar, molasses, and rum, all of which are products of sugar cane. The British soaked their own plum puddings in liquor to preserve them during overseas journeys, but employed the use of brandy. African slaves, brought by the English, began preserving them in rum rather than in brandy. Eventually, it morphed the black cake served in Jamaica today.
Making the cake in the Caribbean is expensive. Dried fruit such as raisins and prunes cost significantly more than mangos and pineapples, making the cake a little bit of a Christmas time luxury. Other ingredients that go into the dessert include brown sugar and something called browning, which is a bittersweet caramel. Simply put, it’s burnt sugar. The browning makes for a richer, darker cake.
The heart and soul of the cake is fruits soaked in rum. The fruit is soaked from anywhere between three weeks to one year. It’s ground into a paste, which gets rid of hard chunks of fruit that make American fruitcakes so awful.
The cake is baked just before Christmas and is eaten at Christmas dinner and afterwards in slices for as long as it holds out. Some Caribbean families keep it on the table throughout the holidays and drench it in rum whenever the top of the cake gets dry, keeping the cake preserved. Sometimes it’s covered in a hard white icing, but it never has any other decorations. The glacé cherries Americans use on their fruitcakes are nowhere to be seen.
The types of rums used vary. In Jamaica, they use Appleton’s or Myers dark rum. Natives of Trinidad often use bitters and rum from Angostura because it is one of their oldest companies and a source of national pride. The Guyanese use Demerara dark rum. Some people put almonds or rose water in their cakes for a little added oomph.
Black cake is a strong symbol of home. Everyone has a different recipe and everyone says his or her recipe is the right one. It’s a sore spot and fights over “who makes it best” have been known to break out between families. But not matter who wins, black cake always tastes like home.
It’s considered extremely rude is you are not offered a slice of black cake and a glass of sorrel when visiting someone’s home during the holidays. Presenting an acquaintance with a whole black cake as a gift is a sign of close friendship and affection because of how time consuming the process is. It takes hours to make the cake, not to mention how expensive the ingredients are. It’s only possible to make a few black cakes so each one is precious.
This is a video I found on Youtube of slightly commercialized black cake recipe. It’s from a company called Grace Foods that produces browning that can be bought in stores. I thought it was awesome.
Still to come, Day 3. And 4. And 5. And 6….
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
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-“roselle.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/509866/roselle>.
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-Roberti, Roberta. “Jamaica Me Crazy.” For Food and Wine Lovers – Epicurean.com. Epicurean.com. Web. 02 Dec. 2011. <http://www.epicurean.com/articles/jamaica-me-crazy.html>.