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  • Writer's pictureKaren L


I give complete credit to the notion of a black cake to the novel, Black Cake, written by Charmaine Wilkerson. Her excellent novel centers around a recipe for a dense fruit cake which originated in the Caribbean and is passed on to future generations in England and the United States. I also acknowledge my sister, Connie Levi, who gave me the idea, "What is your Black Cake?"

What recipe was passed down to you verbally, in writing, or solely from memory? Was it your mother, grandmother, or aunt who taught you to make a cake loved by your family for generations? Maybe it is not a cake, perhaps a soup or hot dish? You probably forgot about this particular food for years, decades. Somehow, it returns unbidden.

My daughter loves to watch a Youtube cooking show called The Victorian Way. She has absolutely no biological or familial connection to England, yet the notion of old recipes passed down to the present is intriguing. My daughter was adopted, so her biological black cake might be tamales. Since she was raised in a European Jewish family in the United States, her black cake may be something I made--matzah balls?

My black cake is plum cake or Pflaumenkuchen. My background is German Jewish. The Germans have a reputation for wonderful cakes, but plum cake is special. First of all, a plum cake lit up my mother like only food can accomplish, recalling sweet memories of early fall before the Nazis destroyed her world. Surprisingly, my father loved plum cake too. They were from different parts of Germany and had different childhood memories of food. For example, a child from the southern part of the United States might remember coconut cream layer cake while a child from New England blueberry pie.

The plums used in Pflaumenkuchen can be typical plums, but cooks agree that the small, black Italian prunes are best. These are harvested in early September and are difficult to find in markets. I assume they are plentiful in Germany. The dough is a simple cake dough: flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, eggs, butter, vanilla, cinnamon. I remember my grandmother whipping it up by hand in minutes in one of her old cracked stoneware bowls. The fruit goes on top, into the oven, and done.

There are distinct versions of this cake and, with all reminiscences, I am confused as to which kind is the actual one. So, I chose a New York Times recipe. My grandmother and mother added ingredients to their batter by instinct. My paternal grandmother knew how to bake intuitively, my mother not so much. I, unfortunately, need explicit written instructions.

I chose a torte which is different from the yeast dough topped with quartered plums my brother has bought from bakeries. There is also a version with streusel on top. My parents probably did not remember which cake they ate as children, given the nature of personal memories, and the trauma they suffered due to World War II.

©Karen Levi 2023

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