At Christmas, Dickinson made a big batch of her black cake and gifted it to family and friends. Darkened from molasses, the confection is rich in spices and much tastier than a traditional English fruitcake.THINKSTOCK PHOTO
Her neighbors knew her as the daughter and sister of prominent men, as a knowledgeable gardener, and as the eccentric recluse who once lowered a basket of gingerbread out her window to reach a group of eager children. Emily Dickinson, a poet of astonishing originality, was also an accomplished baker. She stirred images from home and garden into her poetry. I love her metaphor of snow falling like flour from leaden sieves.
It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.
— Emily Dickinson
A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, taken in 1846. PHOTO FROM AMHERST COLLEGE ARCHIVES AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
Dickinson baked the family bread and enjoyed making cakes for her friends. Black cake, sometimes called dark cake, was a popular version of a traditional English fruitcake, dark from molasses and spices such as cloves, cinnamon and mace. It is first cousin to a plum pudding and much tastier than the dense bricks of commercial fruitcake.
In my household, making the poet’s black cake presented two problems. Called for in the recipe, candied or fresh citron is hard to find and no one in my family likes commercially made candied citron, which is often artificially colored and flavorless.
And Dickinson’s recipe required 19 eggs! I believe she made a big batch of batter yielding several cakes given as gifts, perhaps, at Christmas.
I scaled the recipe down to one-fourth the original and substituted candied orange peel for the citron. I also used rum instead of brandy because that is what I had. Both rum and candied orange peel were traditional ingredients in the 19th century.
The recipe for candied orange peel yields twice the amount you need for this quantity of cake. The candied peel is an excellent gift for bakers and easy to make. It is good chopped up and added to blueberry muffins or cranberry scones or to garnish any chocolate dessert.
Home-baked treats are a nice way to remember your friends.
3/8lb. candied citron or orange peelcoarsely chopped, from 5 medium oranges
Brandy or rum for storingoptional
In a small bowl, soak the raisins and currants in the brandy or rum for one hour, stirring up from the bottom occasionally.
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Line the bottom of a 10-inch wide and 4-inch deep tube pan with waxed or parchment paper. Grease the pan well.
Sift the flour, salt, soda and spices into a medium bowl.
Cream the butter with the sugar in your mixer or a large bowl. Add all the eggs and mix thoroughly. Stir in the molasses until blended. Stir in the flour mixture. Mix in the candied citron or orange peel. Add the raisin mixture and stir just until incorporated.
Pour the cake batter into the buttered tube pan. The pan should be no more than two thirds full of batter. Bake about 2 hours or until the cake starts to pull away from the pan at the edge and the top bounces back when gently pressed.
Cool the cake on a rack. If you are going to keep the cake for weeks, you can brush the top with 1 tablespoon of brandy or rum and put another tablespoon on a plate and place the cake on it. After 15 minutes, wrap the cake well in aluminum foil.
Use a vegetable peeler to pare off the skin of the oranges. Slice the peel into narrow strips about 1/8-inch wide.
Put the orange peel in a large saucepan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Then pour off the water. Repeat one more time to remove bitterness from the orange peels. Remove the orange peels from the water.
Stir sugar into 1½ cups water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 8 to 9 minutes. Add the peels and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer without stirring until the peels are translucent, about 45 minutes. Drain the peels. Shake sugar over the peels and dry on a rack for 4 hours. Store the peels in the sugar.