Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Recreating Emily Dickinson's 1883 Black Cake

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Isabella reporting,

Last week, quite by accident, I attended a 185th birthday party for American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). While visiting Harvard's Houghton Library to see their current exhibition (more about that in a future post), I was invited to join the festivities by friend-of-the-blog Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger at Houghton. How could I resist?

Such a celebration wasn't surprising. The Emily Dickinson Collection at Houghton is the largest in the world devoted to the poet, and contains everything from hand-stitched manuscript copies of her poems to the small desk on which she wrote them. But the centerpiece of this party wasn't a  poem. It was a recipe.

Emily Dickinson's handwritten recipe for Black Cake - the name comes from the dark color created by the ingredients - is a typical 19thc. cake for holidays and celebrations, rich in dried fruit and spices and laced with equal parts of molasses and rum. It's also dauntingly large, requiring nineteen eggs (!) and producing over twelve pounds of batter.

Two intrepid members of Houghton's staff recreated the recipe in all its glory (and beat all those eggs by hand) for the party. Emilie Hardman, Research, Instruction, and Digital Initiatives Librarian and Emily Walhout, Reference Assistant, are the stars of the above video, showing exactly how they made the cake - or rather, several cakes, since the amount of batter exceeded any modern cake pans.

Much like the Rich Cake for Twelfth Night that I featured here last week, this cake needed a month to "mature" and meld the flavors and alcohol. It was worth the wait: I can report that the cake was absolutely delicious, and as  you can see, left, I wasn't the only one to think so.

If you want to try the cake yourself, here's the digital version of Emily Dickinson's original handwritten recipe, and here's the post from Houghton Library's blog with more information about the cake.


Lab Lisa said...

I'm a bit puzzled. We visited Amherst a few weeks ago and I thought the tour guide at Dickinson's house indicated that the "small desk on which she wrote [her poems]" was in its original place in her bedroom.

Unknown said...

I love the idea that, under her modest dresses, Emily had crazy strong biceps. She'd have to, to mix that cake!

Karen Anne said...

I found at

"Exact reproductions of Emily Dickinson's writing stand and bureau were created by Boyd Allen and Caleb Schultz, respectively, of the North Bennet Street School in Boston. Gifts of Amos and Barbara Hostetter, longtime supporters of the Emily Dickinson Museum, the stand and bureau were based on the originals in Harvard University's Houghton Library Emily Dickinson collection."

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Karen Anne, you beat me to it! :) Lab Lisa, the desk in Amherst is a faithful, line-for-line reproduction of the one in the Houghton Library Collection. If you'd like to see it in person (I'm guessing you're in MA, if you were just in Amherst), Houghton has tours that feature the Emily Dickinson room as well as the John Keats Room. The tours are free and open to the public - more info here

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Stephanie, I like the idea of Emily Dickinson beating all those eggs, too! I also loved the fact that the two women recreating the cake were both named Emily. :)

Lab Lisa said...

Thank you to Karen Anne and to Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott for clearing up my confusion. Either I misheard or misremembered (either is possible) or the guide was mistaken (sadly, also a possibility). I am not in Amherst, my husband and I were "passing through" in mid-November and took the tour then.

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