Friday, June 26, 2015

Emily Dickinson's Rice Cakes

by Sheila Connolly

This past weekend fell into a knot of family events—birthdays for both my husband and myself, Father’s Day, the summer solstice (it rained, so no dawn). We usually take ourselves out to dinner, but we couldn’t get inspired by any of the local restaurants in our neighborhood (few and far between, at least the good ones), so we decided to go where we knew we’d find plenty of restaurants: Northampton and Amherst. Saturday was one of Northampton’s market days, so I loaded up on fresh asparagus and garlic scapes. When we arrived in Amherst, we discovered they were holding a three-day event featuring a million or so restaurants, and you could graze at little expense. Despite generally ominous weather the event was well-attended: that is definitely foodie territory.

By Sunday morning it was pouring buckets, so we decided to visit Emily Dickinson’s house (which I had seen but my husband hadn’t). Lovely, as always, and not crowded. The house next door, The Evergreens, was built later by Emily’s brother Austin, and I had never managed to see it, so we followed our very well informed docent to it.

Oh, my. Through a convoluted series of events, the house has changed almost not at all since it was built, in the high Victorian style. It really is like stepping into the past (except that the place needs a lot of work after 100-plus years!). I love grand formal rooms, but I also love what goes on in the back of the house—kitchens and larders and pantries and such. The docent apologized that the stove there now dates from 1903, I think, but the refrigerator (yes, there was one), sinks, etc., are all as they always were (and in the adjacent dining room, the table was set for dinner, with the original family china). (The kitchen in Emily’s house next door is currently off limits to visitors. No picture-taking was allowed at either house.)

Emily was said to be the baker in the family, although if you look at her dress (a replica is on display at her house), it’s clear she was a slight woman, and she had some significant health issues (although there’s still a lot of argument about what they were). So let’s assume she had one or another servant helping her with the baking, especially with the dishes that made vast quantities, like her famous Black Cake recipe (which I presented here in 2010).

This time I’d like to share a simpler—and smaller!—recipe for rice cakes, which would have been served with tea to callers. They’re much more appropriate for spring or summer baking, plus they're quick and easy to whip up when you see guests coming.

Emily Dickinson’s Rice Cakes

1 cup rice flour
1 cup powdered sugar
2 eggs (at room temperature)
1/2 cup (salted) butter, softened
1 tsp milk mixed with 1/4 tsp baking soda

You may add spices to flavor the cakes—mace and/or nutmeg are suggested. Or you could add a teaspoon of vanilla. I went with mace.

Note: this recipe was adapted for modern cooking!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the butter. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar to the butter and mix, then blend in the eggs.

In honor of Emily I used a vintage sifter

 Sift together the dry ingredients, and add to the butter-egg mixture. Add the milk mixed with soda.

Grease an 8x8” square pan (actually my pan is closer to 7x7”, so I used a 9x9” pan instead—it worked fine) and line it with parchment paper. Pour in the batter and bake in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned.

Let cool in the pan before cutting, then cut into squares.

The small cakes are not too sweet, with a bit of crunch (due to the rice flour—it was somewhat coarsely milled). You could serve them with strawberries when they’re in season (which they were in Northampton)!

For cozy-lovers: This is Emily's sister Lavinia (with a cat). The sisters lived together in The Homestead for most of their lives. Lavinia loved cats and had many. Emily hated the cats. Must have been an interesting household.

No privies in sight at either of the Dickinson residences, but some really interesting antique plumbing!

Privy to the Dead is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble


  1. I love mace. My grandmother always put it in her pound cake.

  2. Thanks for taking us along on your trip.

    When I read "rice cakes" I, not surprisingly, thought of the airy puffed rice cakes. These look so much more inviting.

  3. Nifty! Thanks, Sheila! MJ (off to share!)

  4. What a lovely step back in time. These cakes look like cornbread, sort of. Must try.

    ~Daryl / Avery

  5. I'm enjoying your historic recipes. Isn't it fun to experiment with the dishes from different generations?

  6. I enjoy experimenting with old dishes. I have this very old cookbook with handwritten recipes (the fudge is pretty good). Looking forward to reading Privy to the Dead. Such an enjoyable series. Have a great weekend!