I have never liked mixed peel, those little cubes of candied fruit of red, green and yellow that are ubiquitous ornaments for all manner of sweet treats.
As a child, I thought they were spiteful additions to sweet breads, coconut drops, fruit cakes and the like. I reasoned that they were inserted to restrict you from being greedy, and over-indulgent.
Or just to slow down the process—because for me, it was a matter of disgustedly picking out every single one from my portion. (I felt the same way about maraschino cherries. Still do.)
I would have liked to say that I came to appreciate them, but that would be a big fat lie. I have, however, tried to understand their popularity and their origins. It appears that candied fruit are very common in the UK.
Originally, they were made mostly from citrus peel: oranges, lemons, grapefruits, limes, cooked in a thick sugar syrup—a way to preserve the rinds and to add some burst of flavour to baked goods, like biscuits and hot cross buns at Easter time. Perhaps it took root when the English began to tramp through sugar cane fields across its empire.
Given our colonial past, it is highly likely that this is how it arrived in the Caribbean. Like many imports, it may have undergone modifications—like the addition of green pawpaw to the mix.
Perhaps commercialisation affected the taste and texture; we know how wildly different homemade stuff can be from packaged fare on grocery shelves. I have never sampled any version made in a domestic kitchen, so I cannot testify to its goodness.
All I know is that for me they are rude interlopers with an artificial flavour, forcing their way into otherwise satisfying delicacies. I suppose it is an acquired taste, like marmalade.
I have no doubt that candied peels have endured because of the memories they invoke. Every pleasant reminiscence somehow connects to childhood experiences of food. The mind invokes the aromas wafting from ovens, the beloved grannies, mothers and aunties, emerging with floury clothing bearing triumphant offerings; the warmth of family; the cosiness of simplicity.
These are emotions powerful enough to override the reality that you really don’t like the mixed peel—you are simply responding to all that it evokes.
Okay, I get that there are people who genuinely like it, but I have been asking friends how they feel about it and every single one has admitted that they are not fans. In fact, one said to me that he felt they were put there just to give you something to pick out!
As the Christmas season opens its arms, I was thinking about how much I had disliked our sweet breads and black cake because of the various peels. That changed as I became an adult with an interest in exploring our cuisine and experimenting with ingredients and flavours.
About 35 years ago, I tasted a black cake that blew me away for its moistness, its decadence and its absence of mixed peel. Anne shared her technique, for which I will always be grateful because unwittingly she wasn’t just passing along a recipe.
She opened my youthful eyes to the idea that you didn’t have to stick to one way, you could create your own concoctions following basic guidelines but customizing dishes to suit your taste.
Since then, I soak fruit when it is convenient to me; and a day or two before I am ready to bake my black cakes, I simmer them for maybe an hour, then leave it covered until they are called to duty. It made sense to me to put them in a blender with the various alcoholic liquids, pour them into a sealable glass jar and let them have their boozy holiday. The tradition of months of soaking packed its bags for me.
When I began growing in confidence with my cakes and started sharing them, most of the recipients admitted that they did not like black cakes—although they were a cherished seasonal staple—because of the candied fruit, and the disappointment of a cake that was drier than anticipated.
I never skimp on the alcohol; the baking process causes significant evaporation, but leaves behind the rich flavours of the cherry brandy, rum and wine. And the cake will hold up for a very long time; except it doesn’t really last.
Friends have often asked for the recipe because they felt that they had finally tasted a black cake that they truly enjoyed.
Some time ago I was trying to write down the ingredients, because since it is a cake I only do once a year, I have to tax my brain to remember proportions (and since Covid, I have been spectacularly forgetful). I decided to revisit the trusty Naparima Girls’ High School Cook Book and realised that it is essentially what I use, except I am more heavy-handed with the fruit and the liquor.
I thought I would share this because I have noticed that nearly every online recipe for sweet bread and black cake and such begins with the author/baker decanting loving memories of childhood and how the season is incomplete without these staples from granny’s loving hands.
I feel it’s okay to forego some ingredients if you discover that what made it special was really the precious moments you inherited, not the thing itself.