Sunday, December 5, 2010

Emily's Cake

by Sheila Connolly
Emily Dickinson's birthday is December 10th: she would have been 180 this year.  Obviously she hasn't lived that long, but her poetry most definitely has, and it continues to fascinate each new generation of readers.  It seems apt that my new book, A Killer Crop, is coming out three days before her birthday (even though I had no control over that!), because she plays an important role in the story.  To say much more would give away the plot.
Of course I've visited the Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts, where Emily lived much of her life.  The tour includes the kitchen—if you can call it that.  By today's standards it's pretty minimal.  However, that did not deter Emily from cooking, aided by a series of Irish servants, which was typical of the day.  A number of her recipes have been recorded in the delightful pamphlet, Emily Dickinson:  Profile of the Poet as Cook (Nancy Harris Brose, Juliana McGovern Dupre, Wendy Tocher Kohler and Jean McClure Mudge, 1976), and variations have appeared in other sources.

Two years ago my daughter and I decided to make Emily's Black Cake, for reasons that escape me now.  It is, in simplest terms, a fruitcake—but what a fruitcake!  If one follows the recipe in the pamphlet, clearly not intended for modern cooks, it is a monstrous thing, which is very funny when one considers that Emily herself was rather short and slight, as demonstrated by a dress of hers on display the Amherst house.  I mean, really—two pounds each of flour, sugar and butter?  Nineteen eggs??

But we persevered.  The first problem was finding a bowl large enough to mix this behemoth, and a pan large enough to bake it.  I hied me to my local antiques mall and acquired one of each.  The second problem is putting it all together and mixing it—I might recommend a canoe paddle if you have one handy.

The concoction cooks in a low oven for, oh, five to six hours.  Don't plan to do anything else that day.  But wait!  There's more!  It is strongly recommended that you set the baked cake aside for a month or two in an air-tight container, visiting it once a week to pour some brandy over it (the authors of the pamphlet recommend that a "sober" person be responsible for this important duty).

My daughter and I followed all the steps (yes, including the brandy), then dismembered the beast come December and sent manageable pieces to our dearest friends—who, as I recall, never commented.  Ah, well, it is, after all, a fruitcake.  And we now have only a lone remnant which has survived, unchanged, for over two years, to remind us of our endeavor.  Must have been the brandy.  I hope Emily is proud of us.


2 pounds sugar
2 pounds butter
19 eggs
2 pounds flour
2 teaspoons nutmeg
5 teaspoons (each) cloves, mace, and cinnamon
2 teaspoons soda
5 pounds raisins
1¼ pounds currants
1¼ pounds citron
½ pint brandy
½ pint molasses

Blend the sugar and the butter.  Add eggs.  Blend the dry ingredients and mix all together with other ingredients.

Bake at 250 degrees F for 5-6 hours if using a milk pan, or 2 1/2 hours if divided between two tube pans.

I suppose you could reduce the ingredients to a manageable modern size—but where's the fun in that?

Happy 180th Birthday, Emily.




  1. What I think is really cool, Sheila, is that this is EMILY'S fruitcake! And I'm a huge Emily fan--such a fan, that I might even consider cooking something that takes all day in the oven (which goes against everything that I believe in, ordinarily!) to make something that friends won't appreciate. :) It sounds, actually, suspiciously like a Southern recipe--pounds of sugar and butter? 19 eggs? BRANDY? Are we sure Emily wasn't from Macon, Georgia? :)

  2. Five teaspoons of cloves? FIVE? Holy moly! But, like Cleo, I'm game to try it, just because it's Emily's recipe, and so old. I love it that it's baked in a milk pan! Too bad we've missed Stir-Up Sunday (when the English traditionally make their plum puddings). We'd better buy some more eggs quickly, ladies.

  3. Great googly-moogly, that thing had to have been massive.

    How big did it turn out to be? Did you have to use a special platter? Was it heavy to lift?

    Plus, considering the masses of other ingredients - a pound of this, two pounds of that - the recipe only calls for a measly half pint of brandy??

    Anyway, thank you for a glimpse back in time.

  4. Wow, Sheila, how fun! This is a great story. Every time I read or hear anything about Emily Dickinson I'm warped back to high school. We had a pretty great English teacher who took our class to see The Belle of Amherst with Julie Harris. Loved, loved, loved it. What an amazing performance.

    I love how you and your daughter tackled this. What a fun experience. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I made this once with 18 eggs... wasn't nearly as good

    Wink nod

    Funny thing Julie, whenever I hear Emily Dickinson, I'm warped back to sleeping through that high school class.

    But I do love the experiment.

    Wonder if Edgar Allen Poe has a cooking pamphlet

  6. I just read LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS and was enthralled. Have you read it?

  7. Sounds like it's a very hearty cake. What fun to have the history.


  8. Great story, and interesting recipe. I am very tempted to bake my own homage to the great Emily. But wow...

  9. I love Emily Dickinson and I just might have to try this before my husband retires from the Army. It sounds like an institutional size recipe and young soldiers will try anything, especially if it's soaked in brandy.

    How did you think it tasted? And what is a milk pan? Is it the white one in the picture?

    Beverly AKA Bookwoman

  10. What a project! You and your daughter were so brave to tackle it. I can't even imagine taking on a recipe like this.

    It's funny, because I thought the recipe I'm posting tomorrow was outrageous. I'm guessing it tastes better than the fruitcake, though, and it doesn't contain 19 eggs. In comparison, it's quite reasonable!

    ~ Krista

  11. Happy Birthday, Emily! Sheila, I love this.
    I can't believe you actually did this -- I'm in awe, truly!

  12. WOW I agree with Elizabeth this really sounds like a southern recipe 2 lbs here 2 lbs there. I will have to tackle this during the kids Christmas break turn the heat off since the oven will be on all day :). Sheila thank you for sharing some history with us. It does bring back a lot of memories of high school and english class.

  13. Reminds me of a recipe I read about in an old book(was it Beanie Malone?) about a Lady Baltimore cake. Called for something like 18 eggs...

  14. This is some kind of wonderful. For years I've wanted to make Emily's infamous (it is, isn't it?) Black Cake. I've always loved Emily and her poetry. Like Julie, I learned about the recipe via that beautiful play The Belle of Amherst. Thank you so much for sharing your experience visiting her Amherst home and making her cake. Of course, I'm excited to get my hands on A KILLER CROP to find out what part Emily plays in your new mystery! Cheers and thanks so much for the wonderful Emily post. :)

    ~ Cleo
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  15. Thank you all for commenting. Actually it a fruitcake. I'm not a big fan, but it's citron that I don't like--I'm good with raisins and currants and that ilk. And spices.

    I refuse to believe that Emily could have lifted this thing, which is where the Irish helpers came in--they're real, and they play a role in the book too.

    As I said, we have one piece left, two years later. It hasn't changed a bit.

    1. okay, late to reply, but doing some research here. as one of the authors of Emily Dickinson's Cook book, and the one who tackled the fruity fruit cake, I must add that my family's recipe then, 35 years ago, and still today, is the Rice Cake....I know, yuckky rice cakes..but don't think rice cakes...think nutmeg cake - a very tasty tea cake...
      Jule Dupre