Christmas Eve in Grandma’s oven: Grandma Washington’s famous rich Guyanese black cake

By LaWanda McAllister

It is the season again when ingredients are gathered to make the family’s traditional Christmas black cake.

Former Carnegie Principal Norma Washington speaking with Guyana Times Journalist LaWanda McAllister

As we celebrate Christmas tomorrow, some of us will turn up our noses and wrinkle them in disdain as the smell of the baking black cake travels from the ovens in the community.
There are also those of us who cannot wait for our taste buds to light up with the opportunity to taste Grandma’s Christmas cake, whose recipe or special technique is still a secret kept within the family.
This year’s featured Guyanese traditional Christmas black cake recipe was curated by Grandma Norma Washington, a 69-year-old mother of four, a grandmother of 10, and a great-grandmother of three, who loves getting her hands floury in the kitchen whipping up her famous “rich” Guyanese black cake.

Love for cooking

Norma Washington in the kitchen

The former principal of the Carnegie School of Home Economics, who had worked at the institution from 1980 up until 2007, said her love for cooking and baking sprung from watching her grandmother perform magic in the kitchen.
“My grandmother loved cooking. She used to make black pudding, souse, channa, polourie, and sell on Broad and Ketley Streets… and she is the person who taught me to cook. As I grow up, I had much talking about it, because they wanted me to go Carnegie and I said I am not leaving school to go to Carnegie,” she recalled.
Sometime later, she wrote the GCE examination and became a Home Economics teacher. Since then, Ms Washington, as she is called, has been cooking and performing her magic in the kitchen, a mantle her grandmother passed on to her.
“I have learned a lot while I was at Ruimveldt Multilateral… and after going across to Carnegie, I continued to learn. I was in the catering department. I was bake shop instructor, meat instructor, food and beverage service instructor. At one time, I was heading the school and running all three of the departments…,” she explained.

Grandma Washington’s cake

According to Ms Washington, all her years of experience in the kitchen have helped to strengthen her cooking techniques, resulting in a video of her making her black cake going viral. For her, the Christmas treat known as black cake is a cherished and much-anticipated tradition.
That is because one of the distinctive ingredients of this dense, spiced cake is an assortment of dried fruits, including raisins and currants, and dried citrus peel steeped for months in a boozy bath of rum, wine and/or cherry brandy.
As we know, Christmastime in Guyana means visiting family and friends in their homes and having a slice of rich black cake along with a glass of ginger beer. Any leftover cake is generously fed with rum and kept moist for the next guests.
In fact, in our grandmother’s kitchen, there will be several cakes to give some as gifts or just to make sure there is enough to last for the Christmas season.
When asked what is the secret in getting the most perfect black cake, Ms Washington said “over the years I have developed my own thing. When I am making my cake, I would normally mix my mixture at 11 at night, then get up at five in the morning, pan it off and put it in the oven. I find when I do that, I get a moister cake”.
“The flour will absorb the liquid and ingredients…,” she said.

Making the black cake
According to Ms Washington, making your own black cake takes dedication, lots of love, and good ‘average’.
The dried fruit is soaked in rum for some time, and then there is browning, the signature caramel made from burnt sugar.
The recipe is simple. To make 1/2lb of cake, Ms Washington says, you need 1/2lb of sugar, 1/2lb of margarine, 1 1/2lb fruits that have been put through a grinder , and four eggs. Flour is then added in small portions, and is mixed in a folding motion using a metal spoon.
Ground nutmeg, ground clove, and ground cinnamon are added to the mixture. Half cup of burnt sugar is then added, and vanilla essence, but it takes a practised hand. Cherry brandy and rum are then added, and mixed until the cake batter has a dropping consistency.
It is then placed in a greased and lined pan, and put into the oven for the magic to happen.
While there, the smell tickles your taste buds as your mouth ‘springs water’, impatient to get that first bite.
There are countless recipes for black cake, and every Guyanese person will tell you that their grandmother’s is the absolute best, but this one from Grandma Washington’s oven was not only dense, moist, and rich but a decadent piece of art.