On summer days when neighborhood children played in Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, Massachusetts, backyard, the poet would open an upstairs window to lower a basket of her home-baked gingerbread to the ground. But gingerbread wasn’t Dickinson’s most coveted, famous recipe. While we remember Emily Dickinson for her striking, sensitive poetry, her Amherst neighbors knew her for her sticky-sweet, brandy-soaked black cake. Today, food bloggers and Dickinson scholars have resurrected the recipe, whose digitized original is available to all brave bakers through Harvard’s Houghton Library.
Dickinson’s black cake is a traditional fruit cake, but pause before you crack a joke about modern versions of such desserts. Dense, dark, brandy-soaked, and full of syrupy raisins, this molasses-rich original is worlds away from the much-maligned commercial fruitcakes available in the United States today. It’s also massive. Dickinson’s original recipe calls for 19 eggs, five pounds of raisins, and one and a half pounds of citron, an often-candied fruit that tastes like a thick-rinded, less-acidic lemon. Beaten by hand, the resulting batter weighed more than 20 pounds. Baked, then wrapped in cheesecloth and soaked in brandy for at least a month, the finished cakes were likely gifted to Dickinson’s friends and neighbors.
Today, fans of Dickinson (and fruitcake) make the famous cake to celebrate the poet’s December 10 birthday. While some bakers have adapted the recipe to incorporate contemporary ingredients and more manageable quantities, purists insist on following the original as written in Dickinson’s sloping hand. To reproduce the recipe as Emily would have baked it (with the addition of modern oven and tablet technology), staff at Harvard’s Houghton Library made a how-to video. In the words of the immortal poet, “success is counted sweetest” by those who bake all 20 pounds of Emily Dickinson’s original black cake recipe.