It’s time for another fake holiday to aid marketing efforts: National Rum Day.
As one website explains about the origins of rum:
“Rum lovers around the world owe a great debt to a simple plant: sugar cane. Hundreds of years ago, there was a sugar craze in Europe, and colonies were established around the Caribbean to make the sweet commodity. But the production of sugar creates a lot of byproduct — namely, molasses. There wasn’t much use for the thick, sticky, sweet substance until it was discovered that molasses could be fermented and then distilled. The alcohol quickly became popular with pirates, sailors and America’s founders.”
Alas, there was a dark side to all this rum:
“Rum also became a key element in the infamous “slavery triangle.” The Brits shipped molasses to New England, where it was transformed into rum, proceeds from the sales of which purchased slaves in West Africa, who were subsequently taken to the sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and South America.”
Just reporting that slaves processed sugar cane doesn’t begin to convey the horror of the situation.
Sugar was the main crop produced on plantations throughout the Caribbean in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. These plantations produced 80 to 90 percent of the sugar consumed in Western Europe. Most islands were covered with sugar cane fields, and mills for refining it. The main source of labor was enslaved Africans.
Overall some four million slaves were brought to the Caribbean to work directly or indirectly in the sugar industry. Between 12 and 25% of slaves died on British ships on the way from Africa to the Caribbean colonies. Once arrived, conditions were harsh, and mortality rates were extremely high, not only from the difficulty of the work but from abuse – both physical and sexual; disease; and malnutrition. Debilitating work injuries from the machetes and boiling vats were common. The plantocracy opted for “replacement” of slaves, cheaper than actually improving conditions for them.
Thankfully, we can now enjoy rum without that particular aspect of guilt, although we should never forget about this shameful legacy from our past. The rum industry would like you to forget, however. In fact, now rum is known as a “happy drink.” Many “happy” cocktails are based on rum, including daiquiris and mojitos.
Personally, however, I wouldn’t touch the stuff, except, as you might expect, with the addition of butter and sugar, i.e., in the form of rum cake. I make it on each holiday (i.e., actual holiday). I use an adaptation of the King Arthur Flour Caribbean Rum Cake recipe. I make rum cake from scratch rather than using the ubiquitous recipe for Bacardi Rum Cake, because we don’t like cakes made from box mixes. I also make it as a two-layer cake instead of a bundt cake because such a scheme offers more opportunity to apply the rum-soaked glaze in more places. Here is my recipe:
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 3.4-ounce package of instant vanilla pudding
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup whole milk
4 large eggs (or 3/4 cup liquid egg whites)
1/2 cup rum
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 cup rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
To make the cake:
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour two round cake pans and sprinkle chopped nuts evenly over the bottoms.
In a medium bowl, whisk together, flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture and 3 TBS of the canola oil and mix on medium low speed for a minute or two; the mixture will resemble wet sand. Add the pudding mix and mix till combined.
In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, rum, remaining canola oil, and vanilla extract. Add egg mixture to dry ingredients and beat on medium speed until thoroughly combined – 2-3 minutes. The batter will be thin.
Pour cake batter into prepared pans and bake for approximately 35 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. (The bundt cake recipe calls for baking 50 minutes; I have tried to tailor this time to accommodate two pans, but it’s an imperfect approximation; you will need to keep watch after 30 minutes or so to see what works in your own circumstances.)
Place the cake on a cooling rack to cool for a few minutes while you prepare the syrup.
To make the rum soaking syrup:
In a medium sized pan, melt butter over medium heat. Once it is melted, add the sugar and water. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Turn off the heat, wait a few minutes for cooling, and add vanilla and rum. Stir.
As soon as the cake is cool enough to remove it, put the bottom layer on your cake plate. Use a long skewer or fork to poke holes all over the top and pour some of the syrup on to the cake, letting it soaks in. Repeat, saving at least half for when you add the next layer on top, and so you have enough to brush over the sides. And so you have enough to “test” for yourself of course.
Cover and allow it to sit overnight at room temperature. In fact, the longer you can let it sit, the more the glaze soaks in and the better it gets.