Emily’s Cake–Poetry on the Plate

Destination: New England

Books and Play: The Belle of Amherst by William Luce; The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson; and a Recipe

Bring me the sunset in a cup
Bring me the sunset in a cup

Autumn makes me think of New England, and New England makes me want to get out The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson . In a former life, I played Emily in the play The Belle of Amherst: A One-Woman Play
and ever since I have been making the black cake she is making at the beginning of that play. I make it 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.)


as adapted by Vera Marie Badertscher

  • 2 Pounds flour (8 cups)
  • 2 pounds sugar (4 cups)
  • 2 pounds butter (4 cups)
  • 19 eggs
  • 5 pounds raisins
  • 1 1/2 pounds citron
  • 1 1/2 pounds currents
  • 1/2 pint brandy* (1 cup)
  • 1/2 pint molasses (1 cup)
  • 2 nutmegs (4-6 tablespoons, ground)
  • 5 tablespoons total: cloves, mace, cinammon
  • 2 tablespoons soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt

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

Sift flour, soda, spices, salt.  Beat butter and sugar, add eggs a few at a time, beating after each addition.  Add brandy alternately with flour mixture.  Add molasses.  Sprinkle in fruit, slowly as you stir.
Bake at 250 degrees one and a half to three hours depending on the size of the pans you use. Full recipe makes one large “angel food cake” pan; plus 2-3 loaf pans.

Remove from pan to cool.  Wrap in cheesecloth dipped in brandy.  Store in air tight container for several weeks, dribbling on some more brandy from time to time.
Note: I have looked at other recipes on the Internet and immodestly believe this version is best. Slow baking and thorough basting are key.

Click on the image for an Emily poem. Come back every day this week for more New England. Tomorrow a book set in Cape Cod; Thursday a look at the Pilgrims, and France on Friday a surprise connection between France and New England.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

8 thoughts on “Emily’s Cake–Poetry on the Plate

  1. The poem is lovely, the cake sounds delicious! But the key to this entry is this “Belle of Amherst” play; I actually hadn’t heard of that before, and will have to look it up.

    I should add that I do own that version of “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson” and highly recommend it – the previous editions of her poetry have been badly edited, Johnson works from the original sources.

    1. I swear that even non-fruitcake lovers, love this cake. It isn’t that gluey mass that you think of. I think the currants and the mace make a big difference (besides the brandy, of course).

  2. My mom lives next door to Emily Dickinson and knows dozens of her poems by heart. I’d love to read more about your take on her poetry. I so love her poetry. I taught some of her poems to second year English students in Niger, West Africa. They found it amazingly challenging (American students do too) but I think my enthusiasm was contagious!
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Good Taste Means Less Waste =-.

    1. Just between me and thee, I find her very challenging, too. But that is the joy of it. That, and knowing that she had nobody to particularly guide her–so she just invented on her own what suited her. And it was SO different from the poetry she would have read in Victorian books or religious books around the Dickinson house. I’m afraid I wouldn’t add much to your conversation. I love most of her poetry. But some of it just makes me throw up my hands in frustration.

    1. I am fascinated by the history of this recipe. I discovered another black cake recipe in a book of old-fashioned New England recipes. It was nearly identical, except that it had icing, which strikes me as total overkill. Nevertheless, the important thing is that it was a Jamaican recipe–and if you substitute rum for the brandy, that makes sense. Ever since, I have wondered if the Dickinson’s had a Jamaican cook in their household at some time????

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