Christmas Baking: Emily Dickinson Black Cake

In December at Ancestors in Aprons we will talk about cookies, cookies, cookies. But first, a cake. A cake that is poetry on a plate.

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

What is Christmas without poetry? ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; silly stuff like The Grinch; the lovely poetry of the Christmas carols; and even the poetry of popular songs like White Christmas.  

My mother and father both loved poetry. He (Paul Kaser) claimed that mother taught him to appreciate poetry, but we know that his mother liked to read and he learned to love words at her knee. Back when he was in school in the 20s, children were taught by memorization, and even in his later years, he could happily recite whole long poems.

Mother did influence a lot of people to read. I know that former students of my mother’s (Harriette Anderson Kaser) wrote to her even when she was in her 90s thanking her for teaching them to love poetry.

So, while Emily Dickinson may not pop to mind as a Christmas poet, and I can’t claim her as an ancestor–she was a very accomplished baker as well as poet, so it is appropriate for many reasons that we now have a family tradition of Emily Dickinson Black Cake for Christmas.

In another life, when I was acting in local theater, I played Emily in the play The Belle of Amherst: A One-Woman Play,and ever since, I have been making the Emily Dickinson black cake she talks about at the beginning of that play. I make it on Thanksgiving weekend, wrap it in cheesecloth dipped in brandy and serve it on Christmas Eve.

If you are intimidated by the volume of ingredients, cut the recipe in half or one-quarter if you must, but whatever you do, DO NOT call it a fruitcake.)

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

Emily Dickinson Black Cake. Can you smell the aroma?

EMILY DICKINSON BLACK CAKE

as adapted by Vera Marie Badertscher

  • 2 Pounds flour (8 cups)
  • 2 pounds sugar (4 cups)
  • 2 pounds butter (4 cups)
  • 19 eggs
  • 5 pounds raisins
  • 1 1/2 pounds citron
  • 1 1/2 pounds currants [Be sure and get currants–they do taste different]
  • 1/2 pint brandy* (1 cup)
  • 1/2 pint molasses (1 cup)
  • 2 nutmegs (4-6 tablespoons, ground)
  • 5 tablespoons total: cloves, mace, cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt

* Emily says, “Not my father’s BEST brandy.”

Sift flour, soda, spices, salt.  Beat butter and sugar, add eggs a few at a time, beating after each addition.  Add brandy alternately with flour mixture.  Add molasses.  Sprinkle in fruit, slowly as you stir.
Bake at 250 degrees one and a half to three hours depending on the size of the pans you use. Full recipe makes one large “angel food cake” pan; plus 2-3 loaf pans.

Remove from pan to cool.  Wrap in cheesecloth dipped in brandy.  Store in air tight container for several weeks, dribbling on some more brandy from time to time.
Note: I have looked at other recipes on the Internet and immodestly believe this version is best. Slow baking and thorough basting are key.

A Little Black Cake History

You can read a bit of history of dried fruits at the Sun Maid website, and see how long our ancestors have been cooking with raisins and what they made with them. Here’s a particularly relevant passage:

1683 – Merry fruitcake! Austrians encounter the bounty of Middle Eastern fruit when the Turks overrun Vienna. To celebrate their survival, the Viennese serve German turban cake, or “gugelhupf,” with a filling of raisins, lemon and orange peel, almonds, and spices, on Christmas morning.

It stands to reason that before American people could buy fruits grown in Central or South American to stretch the season all year round, they depended upon preserved and dried fruits during the winter.  Hence the raisin pie popular among Ken’s Mennonite relatives. And later  I’ll be sharing a raisin bar cookie recipe from Aunt Rhema.

Interestingly, Emily’s cake most closely resembles Jamaican Black Cake.  You can find several versions of recipes on line, but I first ran across it in a little cookbook that I have since misplaced, and seeing how similar the recipe was, I thought, “Aha! the Dickinson’s, being New Englanders where there was ample trade with the Caribbean, no doubt at some time had a cook who came from Jamaica.”  I’ve never been able to track down that supposition.

There is one major difference. The Jamaican cake is frosted. Which sounds very much like overkill to me. You can also buy commercially baked Jamaican black cakes on line. But I’ll stick with the Emily Dickinson black cake version.

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