Emily Dickinson's Black Cake 60.000

Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post

Nov 29, 1995

This mega-cake recipe -- sized for gift giving -- is a modern adaptation of one created by Emily Dickinson; the 19th century poet learned to cook with her mother's guidance, it is said, and came to be quite good at it. The fruits used here are natural and the brandy syrup gives the fruitcake a moist, mellow kick.

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.

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.

For serving, decorating with fresh greens and flowers around the cake adds a festive touch.

Make Ahead: It's best to make the brandy syrup a day in advance; you may have some left over, which can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to several weeks. The fruit needs to macerate for at least 1 hour, and preferably overnight. The cakes need an hour, and preferably a day or two, for the syrup to soak in. The soaked, wrapped cakes can be refrigerated for up to several weeks. You can freeze the baked, unsoaked cakes in advance; defrost for at least 1 hour before applying the brandy syrup.

Servings: 60

Yield: (makes 4 large loaf cakes or 5 or 6 nine-inch rounds)

  • For the syrup
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup brandy, or more as needed
  • For the fruit
  • 1 3/4 pounds raisins
  • 8 ounces dried currants
  • 8 ounces dried apricots, cut into pieces the size of raisins
  • 8 ounces pitted dried prunes, 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
  • For the cake
  • 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 ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground mace
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 48 tablespoons (6 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 13 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3/4 cup molasses


For the syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat; cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Let cool, then transfer to a lidded container. Stir in the cup of brandy, or more (to your taste). Cover and refrigerate.

For the fruit: Toss together the raisins, currants, apricots, prunes, pears and dates with 1/2 cup brandy in a large bowl, until evenly moistened. Let stand for at least 1 hour, and preferably overnight.

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease the pans with cooking oil spray, then line them with parchment paper.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger in a mixing bowl.

Beat the butter in the very large bowl (5-quart) of a stand mixer on medium speed, until creamy. Gradually add the sugar, beating until the mixture is light in color and texture. Add the eggs 3 at a time (adding 4 in the last addition), beating well each time, and stopping to scrape down the bowl, as needed. On medium speed, add the vanilla extract and pour in the molasses. The batter may look curdled, but that's okay.

Transfer to a very large mixing bowl. Gradually add the flour mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon just until no trace of dry ingredients remains.

Drain the macerating fruit, reserving its liquid. Fold the fruit into the batter, taking care not to over-mix. If the batter becomes to stiff to stir, feel free to use your clean hands as mixing tools.

Divide among batter the pans, filling each one about two-thirds full. Smooth the tops. Bake until the top of the cakes are firm to the touch at the center. (Nine-inch rounds will take 30 to 35 minutes; check doneness often). The cakes will be very dark on top and slightly sunken. Let the cake cool in the pans.

Use a skewer to poke holes in the cake at 1-inch intervals. Add the reserved macerating liquid to your brandy syrup. Begin brushing or pouring the brandy syrup evenly over each cake, allowing a few minutes' soaking-in time before applying more. If the cakes seem moist enough, it might not be necessary to use all the syrup.

Wrap the cakes (in their pans) well in plastic wrap, or slide each one into its own large zip-top bag. Let stand for at least 1 hour in a cool place, and preferably up to a day or two before serving.

When ready to serve, run a round-edged knife around the edges of the cakes to loosen them from the sides of the pans. Invert onto a serving platter and discard the parchment paper before slicing.

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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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