Showing posts with label A Killer Crop. Show all posts
Showing posts with label A Killer Crop. Show all posts

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.