The Black Bean Cake

This recipe appeared in my first book, Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics, and when people heard I was doing a new book, everyone said, “Make sure to include the black bean cake!” And that bit about Liz Smith. So here they are.

I think that the columnist Liz Smith’s farewell to Rock Hudson—“So long, big boy, have a good rest”—is what I would like on my tombstone, but it will probably be: “He invented the black bean cake.”

It is simple, beautiful, easy, fast, and inexpensive. But it has never been imitated with any success, despite many tries, because no one has ever believed what the secret is: let the cooked black beans drain overnight, uncovered, so they dry out. The worse they look before grinding, the better the final result. And you cannot use a food processor—they must go through a meat grinder (or a food mill, but that’s too much work).


  • 3 cups black beans
  • 1 tablespoon ancho chill powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 small fresh hot green chili, stemmed, seeded, finely chopped
  • ½ cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • ¼ cup rendered duck fat, lard, or pure vegetable oil (canola, peanut, or safflower)
  • ¼ cup fresh tomato relish
  • 12 sprigs cilantro, washed, spun dry


Cook the beans as directed for white beans, but before you grind them, let them drain for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight. Don’t worry if they look terrible after sitting that long. Save the liquid for soup.

Put the cooked beans through a meat grinder into a bowl. Add the chili powder, cumin, fresh chili, cilantro leaves, and salt, and mix all the ingredients to form a paste.

Roll the paste into four equal balls. Put each ball between two pieces of waxed paper and press them with the palm of your hand into neat rounds inch thick. Put the rounds in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to firm up (they can stay in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours).

Just before cooking the bean cakes, whisk the sour cream and milk together until smooth.

Heat the duck fat (or lard or vegetable oil) in a nonstick pan or on a griddle. When the pan is hot, put in the cakes and cook 2 minutes on each side. Put the cakes on warm plates with a spoonful of sour cream on the center of each cake. Spoon the relish onto the sour cream. Garnish the plates with the cilantro sprigs.


In Manila, we served the cakes with pieces of suckling or roast pig skin with a cilantro-banana flower salad dressed in lime juice and sesame oil.