Emily Dickinson's Black Cake 60.000
Nov 29, 1995

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886), to most of us, is not exactly a name one expects to find in the Food section. Her poetry -- simple, sometimes fierce -- has endured and endeared. Putting her literary gifts aside for a moment, various biographical references describe "Em" as someone who, with her mother's guidance, came to enjoy cooking and was quite good at it. One report has it that "her father would eat no bread except that baked by her." Who knew? I didn't, until a blustery November day in 1986 when I was asked to reproduce one of her cake recipes for the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Okay, so it's a fruitcake. Say what you will ("eeeyew," perhaps?), it's perfect for the holidays. Adapting the cake for 20th-century palates, however, took many, many tries. But with some sound training and a bit of patience: voila! This is the fruitcake for folks who swore they'd never come within yards of a piece of fruitcake. For one thing, all of the fruits have colors and textures that are found in nature. It's wonderfully spiced, and the brandy syrup gives it a moist, mellow kick. As one late, great friend remarked, "This cake'll put stars in your eyes."

This is a good "do-ahead" cake, since the brandy syrup needs time to soak in. If dried pears are not a favorite, try substituting dried peaches, or figs, or a dried fruit that strikes your fancy.

Servings: 60
  • For the syrup
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1 cup brandy, or more to taste
  • To macerate the fruit
  • 1 3/4 pounds raisins
  • 8 ounces dried currants
  • 8 ounces dried apricots, cut into pieces the size of raisins
  • 2 ounces dried pears, cut into pieces the size of raisins
  • 4 ounces pitted dates, cut into pieces the size of raisins
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • To macerate the frut
  • 8 ounces pitted dried prunes, cut into pieces the size of raisins
  • For the batter
  • 3 1/4 cups unbleached flour
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons mace
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for the pan(s)
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 13 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3/4 cup molasses


If possible, prepare the syrup the day before baking the cake. The brandy can be a Cognac-type by itself, or a combination of flavors, including amaretto or hazelnut liqueur. Your taste buds can guide you here. (See notes about storing any leftover syrup.)

This makes about 20 cups of batter. An average loaf pan holds between 4 and 5 cups of batter, so this recipe will make about four large loaf cakes, or five or six 9-inch rounds. Or, in a 12-by-2-inch round pan, perhaps two. Or, one large 13-by-18-by-2 1/2-inch pan. You get the idea, though: You can bake it in any size and shape.

The day before baking: In a 2-quart saucepan, combine 3 cups sugar and 2 cups water. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves. Cool, then add 1 cup brandy (or more to taste). Cover tightly and refrigerate.

To macerate the fruit: In a large bowl, toss raisins, currants, apricots, prunes, pears and dates (or fruit of your choice) with 1/2 cup brandy. Let stand overnight, preferably, or for an hour, or just while you get the other ingredients together.

The day of baking: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and line the pan(s) with wax paper or parchment; butter or spray the paper or parchment with nonstick cookware spray.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger together. Set aside.

In a very large bowl (I use the 5-quart bowl of my standing mixer), cream the butter and gradually add 3 cups sugar, beating until the mixture is light in color and texture. Add the eggs 3 at a time (adding 4 at the last addition), beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl several times with a spatula. Add the vanilla. With the mixer on medium speed, pour in the molasses. The mixture may look curdled, but that's okay.

Transfer the batter to a very big mixing bowl. Gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until the flour is incorporated. Drain the macerating fruit, reserving the liquid left in the bowl. Fold the fruit into the batter, taking care not to overmix. Note: With this much batter, make sure your spatula is sturdy; otherwise, your hands are your best folding tools.

Turn the batter into the prepared pan(s), filling each pan about 2/3 full. Smooth the top and bake until the top of the cake is firm to the touch in the middle. Nine-inch rounds will take 30 to 35 minutes. The cake will be very dark on top and slightly sunken.

Let the cake cool in the pan.* With a skewer, poke holes in the cake at 1-inch intervals. Begin brushing/tapping the brandy-sugar syrup evenly over the cake, allowing a few minutes for the syrup to soak in before brushing on more. If the cake seems moist enough, it might not be necessary to use all the syrup.**

Wrap the cake well in plastic wrap (or slide it into a large clean plastic bag) and allow it to stand for at least 1 hour -- or, preferably, a day or two -- in a cool place. This cake will keep for several weeks if stored in the refrigerator or in a cool place.

Run a small knife around the cake to loosen it from the sides of the pan. Invert the cake onto a serving platter, then remove the liner. Cover the cake to preserve moisture until presentation time. Fresh greens and flowers around it add a festive touch.

* To freeze the cake: Remove cooled cakes from pans and wrap well. After thawing, and at least 1 hour (or up to 2 days) before serving, brush on the brandy syrup according to the instructions above.

** Leftover syrup, tightly covered and refrigerated, will keep for several weeks. If you freeze the cakes, use the syrup when you defrost them.

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Recipe Source

From Chevy Chase baker and caterer Margery K. Friedman, adapted from 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson's home recipe.

Tested by Nancy McKeon.

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