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Arts & Life

Poetry In Baking: Emily Dickinson's Black Cake (Recipe)

Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848.

Emily Dickinson's Black Cake

Greg Patent writes:

The poet Emily Dickinson prided herself on her skill as a cook, and she was extremely proud of her black cake. This is a scaled-down version of her recipe, which was quadruple this one, and baked in a milk pail. William Luce, in his one-woman play, "The Belle of Amherst," has Miss Dickinson giving this recipe soon after the play opens. Listening to Julie Harris as she detailed the instructions made my mouth water, and I couldn't wait to try it. It is a fruit cake jam-packed with currants, raisins, and citron. There are no nuts, and it is absolutely delicious. In fact, it wasn't usual practice to include nuts in 19th century fruit cake recipes. The 20th century habit of making fruit cakes with dyed candied fruits, I'm afraid, turned them into overly sweet confections which became the butt of countless jokes.

I love fruit cake, the old-fashioned kind, and always have. When I was 17, I made a 3-tiered wedding cake from a fruit cake recipe to celebrate my parents' 22nd wedding anniversary. Their wedding cake had been a fruit cake, traditional at the time, and that's what they wanted for their anniversary. I baked the layers weeks ahead of their party, wrapped them in cheesecloth, and doused them lightly every week with whiskey. When the time came to ice the cake, I used a fondant icing.

Black cake, which would be splendid for a wedding cake, is easy to make, and keeps well in the refrigerator for several weeks. The batter is basically a pound cake with the addition of a little brandy and molasses. The cake gets its name from the color of the raisins and currants. Dark raisins are essential to the taste of this cake. Do not substitute golden raisins. Miss Dickinson's recipe calls for baking soda (1/2 teaspoon for the proportions here). I like it better with about half that amount. More than that and the cake might overflow the pans. Perhaps the molasses in Miss Dickinson's time was more acidic than today, justifying the larger quantity of baking soda.

Store the cakes in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic wrap and foil, and cut portions into very thin slices with a sharp serrated knife. These cakes require long, slow baking.

Black Cake ingredients:

1 1/4 pounds of dark raisins
10 ounces of currants
6 ounces (1 cup) of finely-diced citron
1/4 cup of all-purpose flour (spooned into the cup and leveled)
2 cups (8 ounces) of sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of ground mace
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves
1/2 pound (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup of granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1/4 cup of brandy
1/4 cup molasses (I use Grandma's)


1. Adjust two oven racks with one in the center and one in the lowest position. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Butter two 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 3/4 inch loaf pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or waxed paper cut to fit, and butter the paper. Set the pans aside. Place a 13 x 9 x 2 inch pan half-filled with hot tap water on the lower oven rack.

2. In a large bowl combine the raisins, currants, and citron. Add the 1/4 cup of flour and toss the fruits with your fingers to coat each piece well. Set aside.

3. Whisk together thoroughly in a medium bowl the 2 cups of flour with the salt, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, and cloves. Beat the butter with the paddle attachment of an electric stand mixer on medium speed until very soft and smooth, about 1 minute. While beating on medium speed, gradually sprinkle in the sugar, 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time, and beat for about 20 seconds between additions. When all the sugar has been added, scrape the bowl and beater and beat on medium-high uninterrupted for 5 minutes. In a 2-cup glass measure or small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork just to combine the yolks and whites.

While beating on low speed, drizzle in the eggs in 2 to 3 tablespoon installments. Beat until each addition is thoroughly incorporated before adding the next. The batter may look curdled; don't be concerned. When all the eggs are in, scrape the bowl and beat on medium high speed for 3 minutes. At this point the batter should be smooth and fluffy. Scrape the bowl and beater well.

4. With the machine on low speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients in 3 additions and the brandy in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat only until each addition is
thoroughly incorporated. Add the molasses and beat it in on low speed. Transfer the batter to a large, wide, shallow bowl with about an 8-quart capacity (mine is 13 1/2 inches in diameter and 4
3/4 inches deep). For ease in mixing, it is important that the bowl not be too deep.

5. Now you will add the fruit to the batter, but it must be done gradually. In the play, "The Belle of Amherst," Miss Dickinson says "slowly now--as you stir." Scatter a handful of the fruits over the batter and stir them in well with a wooden spoon. Stir until each piece is well-coated with batter. Continue adding the fruits a handful at a time, making sure to stir until well-coated with the batter before adding the next installment. If you add the fruits too fast, they will tend to stick together in clumps instead of remaining in separate pieces. The batter will be very stiff once all the fruits are in. Spoon the batter into the pans, packing it down with a rubber spatula to remove any air pockets. The pans will be about
three-fourths full. Place the pans in the oven on the middle rack.

After 2 hours of baking remove the pan of water. Continue baking the cakes for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until they spring back when gently pressed and a thin wooden skewer inserted into the centers comes out clean. Total baking time is 3 to 3 1/2 hours.

6. Place the cake pans on a wire rack and cool the cakes completely. Run a thin-bladed sharp knife around the edges of the cakes to release them and invert the pans onto a counter top. If the cakes don't fall out right away, rap the pans sharply on the counter to release the cakes. Lift off the pans, and peel the papers off the cakes. Wrap each cake in plastic wrap, and then in foil, and refrigerate them. This cake is far easier to cut when cold. Place the cake with its bottom side up on a cutting board, and cut into thin slices using a sharp serrated knife. If you want your cakes to have a little kick, brush them with a spoonful or two of brandy or rum before wrapping them up. The cakes will keep for up to 6 weeks in the refrigerator, or they may be frozen for 4 to 6 months.

Makes 2 loaves.

By Greg Patent © Copyright 2015 by Greg Patent from his cookbook, “Baking in America.”

(Broadcast: "The Food Guys," 12/20/15, 12/24/15, and 12/24/17. Listen weekly on the radio at 11:50 a.m. Sundays and again at 4:54 p.m. Thursdays, or via podcast.)