Turns out Kathy Ann Paul – aka Sweet Hand Kathy – is as capable a DJ as she is a baker.
Right now, when you walk into her Miami Gardens restaurant – called, of course, Sweet Hand Kathy – you’re likely to be regaled with “parang,” a festive blend of music like Trinidadian calypso and Venezuelan gaita. That’s because parang season means Christmas season in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean island country where Paul grew up.
“We’re definitely paranging these days,” Paul tells me. “It’s traditional. Very important. Christmas Eve night we have a big event here. We’ll have a DJ playing outside in the parking lot.”
But right now Paul is inside her bakery kitchen making something else very important – more important, actually – to a Trinidadian Christmas. It’s the heavenly, rum-soaked fruit confection called black cake, which is arguably the most important food fixture of any Caribbean Christmas celebration.
“In January, everybody starts soaking the fruits for the black cake,” Paul says.
You read that right. It’s so important that folks start preparing the black cake a full year before Christmas.
“There are so many different kinds of fruits – like tutti frutti, which is made out of orange peels and citrus fruits,” Paul notes. “We have the cherry; they put the walnuts, the currants, raisins, and then you have the prunes. You have to soak it in wine and you have to soak it in rum.”
Especially rum. (Did I mention for a whole year?) But black cake is more than just rum cake. And it’s more than the fruit cake Americans know. In fact, Paul’s disappointment after tasting American fruit cake here helped convince her to start a bakery.
And to make a lot of black cakes at Christmas.
“My grandmother inspired me to do black cake, right?” Paul recalls. “And my grandmother would bake, and then everybody in the village always got a cake. So that’s the reason why I am so used to cooking in large amounts.”
And in her own style. To turn that marinated fruit mixture into the dark, caramelized delight known as black cake, Paul uses her grandmother’s ingredients – “cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, rosewater, cola essence” – but also her own “secret ingredients," including:
“Granulated bay leaf,” Paul tells me. “When I first used that it was a hit. Gave it my own twist – a bolt of flavor. I wish my grandmother was alive today to really taste my cake and she would have been really, really, really proud."
"Here, we take that first bite of black cake in December and we're happy. I mean, you're back to your childhood Christmas just like that!”
Not just Trinidadians but the entire Caribbean take pride in black cake. Or at least the English-speaking islands. And that’s the point. The islanders consider their Christmas black cake an exquisite refinement of the Christmas plum pudding their former British colonial overlords introduced to the West Indies.
Every island’s recipe – from Barbados to the Bahamas, Grenada to Guyana – is a little different. And that’s created some fun, intra-Caribbean rivalry.
“I know everybody who makes it, from any country, they will say that their cake is the best,” says Maurice Chang, co-owner of Jamrock, a popular Jamaican eatery in Kendall.
When Chang lost his job in Miami during the last recession, he decided to reconnect with Jamaica, his birth island. So he and his Jamaican wife Marcia opened Jamrock, and each December he bakes his family’s black cake recipe – created in Colleyville, Jamaica.
“It does have a lot of meaning to me,” says Chang. “We try to be perfect with it.”
Perfect, Chang adds, because he feels it’s a key part of preserving Jamaican and Caribbean culture here in South Florida – a culture he fears may be waning.
“We are getting a little bit more Americanized,” he says. “And although we are not losing our identity, our culture – well, we are sort of in survival mode.”
That renewed urgency to promote black cake has another interesting benefit. Bakers in South Florida’s various Caribbean communities are borrowing from each other’s recipes.
Don’t tell the Trinidadian rummakers’ association, for example, but Paul now uses Jamaican overproof rum to soak her black cake.
“I like it for my black cake,” she admits to me in her kitchen. “More citrus smell.”
So I bought one of Paul’s Trinidadian black cakes and one of Chang’s Jamaican black cakes and brought them back to the WLRN studios for our staff to try.
They were blown away by the swirl of rich and elegant flavors, as piquant and varied as Caribbean cultures themselves.
And the winner was…Well, you don’t think we’re really that foolish, do you?
They were both superb – and a taste of the South Florida holidays too long overlooked by the rest of us.
Some places in South Florida to find Caribbean Christmas black cake:
Sweet Hand Kathy (Trinidadian), 20316 NW Second Ave, Miami Gardens
Jamrock (Jamaican), 12560 Kendall Dr., Miami (in Kendall)
Sybil's Bakery (Guyanese), 4938 N University Dr, Lauderhill
Jamaica Kitchen, 8736 SW 72nd St, Miami