Emily Dickinson’s Jamaican Black Cake Recipe

Emily Dickinson's Black Cake Recipe on http://www.theculinarylife.com

– Emily Dickinson’s Jamaican black cake –

Today’s guest post is by blogger and freelance writer Vera Marie Badertscher. Vera writes on all sorts of fascinating historical topics, and her posts on literature are always my favorite. Given I was an English Lit major at Cal, I’m a sucker for anything literary!

This post combines two of my favorite topics: food and literature. Please welcome Vera as she shares her research on one of Emily Dickinson’s favorite dishes.

“Spices Fly In the Receipt”  — a line from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems

In a former life, I played Emily Dickinson in the one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, and I delved into The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson as part of my preparation.  I love her poetry, but it is Emily the cook, that really hooked me.

I’m not alone. The volunteers at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Massachusetts published a cookbook of Emily’s recipes, which is out of print with limited copies available on line. You can order Emily Dickinson, a Portrait of the Poet as Cook, with fewer recipes from the bookstore at the museum web site. The cookbooks came out long after I had taken on her Jamaican Black Cake recipe, however, so I was on my own.

The play begins with Emily pacing around the stage reciting a recipe that she is sending to a friend.  Since I  love to cook, I promptly tried her recipe for Black Cake as part of my “Actor’s Studio” type preparation for the role. It turned out very well, and we served up slices to audience members during intermission. Ever since, I have been making the black cake that she is making at the beginning of  The Belle of Amherst.

One thing I learned from Emily’s Black Cake recipe — she was not the delicate, feeble flower that we picture.  This batter, thick with fruit, is dense and takes muscle to mix. One year when my husband helped me stir, he actually broke a wooden spoon, trying to drag it through the batter.

I looked at some  old timey cookbooks to figure out how to convert the amounts, but nowadays, of course, there are guides readily available for instructions like “butter the size of an egg”, and conversions from pounds to cups. But you still have to take into consideration things like the size of eggs–probably not as large as the ones you are using today; and the type of flour (perhaps less refined). As is the case with most historic recipes, there is no mention of temperature or cooking time. I was on my own to work  it out.

Emily says she bakes the cake in a milk pan, and I’ve never had a really definitive answer on what that is, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have one.  So I use an array of loaf pans, including some of the mini- light weight aluminum ones that I can wrap in plastic wrap and ribbon for Christmas gifts. When I make the large version (below) I use an angel food cake/tube pan for a really spectacular sized cake.

The recipe is as close as I can possibly get to Emily’s. I make only one concession to modern taste and availability of ingredients. Instead of using all citron (which can be a bit bitter), I blend several kinds of candied fruit (eg. lemon, orange and citron). I don’t imagine that Emily had that choice.

I make this on Thanksgiving weekend, wrap it in cheesecloth dipped in brandy and serve it on Christmas Eve. (Cut the recipe in half or one-quarter if you must, but DO NOT call it a fruitcake). And you probably should not show the recipe to your cardiologist–Two pounds of butter and 19 eggs??????

Note: I have looked at other recipes on the Internet and immodestly believe this version is best. Slow baking and thorough basting are key.

Emily Dickinson's Jamaican Black Cake on http://www.theculinarylife.com

5.0 from 2 reviews
Emily Dickinson's Jamaican Black Cake Recipe
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
The recipe is as close as I can possibly get to Emily Dickinson’s black cake. I make only one concession to modern taste and availability of ingredients. Instead of using all citron, I blend several kinds of candied fruit. I make this on Thanksgiving weekend, wrap it in cheesecloth dipped in brandy and serve it on Christmas Eve. Cut the recipe in half or one-quarter if you must, but DO NOT call it a fruitcake! Yield: 1 very large cake
  • 2 pounds flour (8 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons baking soda
  • 2 nutmegs (4-6 tablespoons, ground)
  • 5 tablespoons total: cloves, mace, cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 pounds butter (4 cups)
  • 2 pounds sugar (4 cups)
  • 19 eggs
  • 1/2 pint brandy* (1 cup)
  • 1/2 pint molasses (1 cup)
  • 5 pounds raisins
  • 1 1/2 pounds citron
  • 1 1/2 pounds currents
  1. Preheat oven to 250°F (121°C). Butter a large angel food pan.
  2. Sift together flour, soda, spices, salt. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar, adding eggs a few at a time and beating after each addition. Add brandy, mix well, and add flour mixture, again mixing well. Add molasses and sprinkle in fruit slowly as you stir. Pour into greased pan.
  3. Bake for 3 hours, then remove cake from pan to cool. Wrap the cake in cheesecloth dipped in brandy. Store in an air-tight container for several weeks, dribbling on more brandy from time to time. Again, slow baking and thorough basting are key.

* Emily says, “Not my father’s BEST brandy.”

Cooking Resources:

If you like this recipe, you might be interested in the following resources:

  1. A sample recipe from Emily Dickinson: Portrait of the Poet as Cook.
  2. What is citron? Or, you could try making it yourself.
  3. A possible milk pan: Cast iron milk pan
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Comments from other ninjas:

  1. Linda @spiceboxtravels says

    Interesting– I am fascinated by Emily Dickinson’s culinary life. Do you know the origin of Emily’s black cake? It seems very similar to the one made in Trinidad (British Caribbean). But that one makes this look dietetic and ascetic– the Trini version involves a bottle each of rum and brandy!

  2. Flour Gurl says

    Linda@spicebox travels: i had the same thought, it sounded like my mothers black cake recipe… and we’re from Trinidad. and you are sooooo right about the additional alcohol >:)

    • Vera Marie Badertscher says

      I am so sorry it took me a whole year to notice these comments! But I agree, in my fantasy, the Dickinson household hired a cook who came from the British West Indies. (I haven’t been able to confirm that, but it would not be unusual in the New England of that time.) My theory evolved when I read a cookbook of recipes from colonial America that included a Caribbean Black Cake, the only other cake I’ve heard called by that name. The difference with Emily’s in that case was not so much in the amount of alcohol, but in the fact it was frosted with white icing–now that’s a case of ‘icing on the cake.’ if I ever saw one!

  3. The Writer's [Inner] Journey says

    This is the ultimate literary-foodie post! What a wonderful gift this would make. Also, a great way to interest new readers in the legendary author – through the stomach!

  4. Living Large says

    Broke a wooden spoon mixing it!? Wow. I know I would have to get my husband to help me with this one. Great post!

  5. Jane Boursaw says

    Half a pint of brandy – cool!!! This truly sounds like a cake to beat all cakes – and not for the wilting flower types.

  6. Jerry Russell says

    We have all the basic food groups: Eggs, Butter and Brandy! This sounds wonderful. Too bad I don’t have time to put this together this year. I’ll have to put it on my list of things to make once we get settled-in in TX.

  7. Harini says

    I saw this shared by David Lebovitz on facebook and decided to try a vegan version. I had to adapt it a little but I must say this tastes great. We had one half the day I baked and I kept the other half soaked in rum, basting it daily. Yesterday we ate up the rested one which tasted even better. Very moist and rummy! Thanks!

  8. Marian says

    In my U.S. Multicultural Fiction class we read, “Beyond the Limbo Silence,” by Elizabeth Nunez.
    A humiliating experience happens to the protagonist when her mother sends her fruitcake from Trinidad (175).

    I have the recipes of Emily Dickinson, and know of this hilarious recipe for Black Cake (19 eggs ?????? is right), but to have this opportunity to tie my lovely Emily Dickinson with a book I read, and another culture, well, it simply made my day.

    Great writing.

  9. Of says

    Any substitution for brandy. I know it’s weird I don’t have it on hand and I never drink . I had tasted a cake of this kind and I loved it thanks

  10. Vera Marie Badertscher says

    I imagine you could substitute a fruit juice (apple or orange) in the ingredients- to get the moisture (or even water for that matter). With fruit juice, I’d reduce the sugar a bit since they add their own sweetness.
    But it doesn’t seem to me that you’d want to soak it in anything other than brandy. So it would just go naked–and a little drier– out into the world. And then, of course we’re right back to the fact that it is not Emily’s cake any more–just as the gluten-free, sugar-free, whatever-free versions are not Emily’s cake.

  11. Vera Marie Badertscher says

    Marian: So glad that you could tie the knot between Emily and Trinidad. And thanks for the comment on the writing of the post. (Sorry this is a belated response and hope you see it.)

  12. Flour Gurl says

    Vera: Traditionally a lot of people use this as their wedding cake in Trinidad. That is basically the only time the cake will receive icing, unless of course, it is for some other special occasion.

  13. Vera Marie Badertscher says

    Flour GIrl: That’s interesting to know. The book in which I saw the recipe didn’t make the distinction. But I still can’t imagine adding icing on such a rich cake.

  14. Rayne says

    I saw the first act of “The Belle of Amherst,” when it was performed at my upstate NY high school. It was wonderful, and the opening lines have always stayed with me — and today they brought me here to your blog. Thank you for preserving, translating and sharing this wonderful recipe and its history. I look forward to serving it at Thanksgiving this year!

  15. joyce piotrowski says

    About 40 years ago I tested this recipe for Phyllis Richmond, who was the food editor of the Washington Post. I was a freelance writer. It required 6 months to finish since the fruit was marinated in a mixture of hard liquors and sherry. The fruits were all dry fruits like prunes, raisins figs and dried pineapple (perhaps some citron….it has been forty years. The remainder of the recipe seems right and it looks like the one I baked except that mine looked many shades darker. I am positive the flavor would be different. I felt at the time that it needed a topping of hard sauce. P.S. I never made it again.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Hi Joyce,

      That’s definitely a long time! I might actually have to try it to see how it ends up. Also, I agree – a sauce would definitely make this cake more enjoyable.


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