Baking Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake

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Baking Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake

The Emily Dickinson manuscripts are a cherished part of Houghton Library's collections and--while it is her poems and letters that are most often celebrated--the poet's lesser known lines: "2 Butter. / 19 eggs. / 5 pounds Raisins" are also cause to celebrate.

Dickinson's manuscript recipe for black cake, from which these lines come, was sent along with a bouquet of flowers to Nellie Sweetser in the summer of 1883. Black cake is a traditional Christmas specialty closely related to the English fruitcake, "blackened" with the addition of burnt sugar syrup or molasses. It was generously spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and clove before being wrapped in brandy- or rum-soaked cloth and often aged at least a month. The recipe, though somewhat shocking to a modern reader (19 eggs!), turns out to be remarkably orthodox in its ratios, if not its scale. Fully assembled, the recipe produces batter weighing in excess of twenty pounds.

Delve into the history of this majestic cake and explore the story of each ingredient, in the context of Emily Dickinson's nineteenth-century Amherst home, with librarians of Houghton. Each ingredient is accompanied with watercolors by Robin Harney evoking Dickinson's moment in time and moments in the kitchen.

Publication Date: 
December 31, 2019