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
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.