Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Emily Dickinson!

Today would have been Emily Dickinson's 179th birthday. The Belle of Amherst, known for her reclusive tendencies and innovative poetry, was also a baker. Her black cake recipe circulates around a lot, and a version by Margery K. Eagan is below. To taste the cake for yourself (without having to make it!) head to the Folger Shakespeare Library on Monday at 7:30 p.m. for their annual Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute in the Elizabethan Theatre.

The speaker this year, Lucie Brock-Broido, will read selections from her poetry collection The Master Letters, which was inspired by three letters Dickinson wrote to "Dear Master" but didn't send. Tickets are $12 and include the reading, a conversation and reception with black cake.

Emily Dickinson's Black Cake Recipe

1 ½ cups brandy, divided
3 cups sugar
1 ¾ lbs. raisins
8 oz. currants
8 oz. dried apricots, cut in ½” pieces (size of raisins)
8 oz. pitted prunes, cut in ½” pieces
2 oz. dried pears, cut in ½” pieces
4 oz. pitted dates cut in ½” pieces
1 ½ lbs. soft butter (salted or unsalted)
1 ½ lbs. granulated sugar
13 eggs at room temperature
1 ½ tsp. vanilla
¾ c. molasses
1 ½ lbs. unbleached flour
4 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt (or none if using salted butter)
1 ¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 ¼ tsp. ground cloves
1 ¼ tsp. mace
1 ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
¼ tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground ginger

The day before baking the cake, if possible, prepare brandy syrup: In a 2 qt. saucepan over medium heat, mix 3 c. sugar with 2 c. water until sugar dissolves. Let cool and add approximately 1 c. brandy (more or less to taste). In a large bowl, toss all raisins, currants, apricots, prunes, pears, and dates with ½ cup brandy. Let stand overnight, preferably, or an hour, or just while you get the other ingredients together.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Butter a 13" X 18" X 2 ½” pan and line with wax paper or parchment: butter paper or parchment. (See notes about using different pans—you don't have to make just one cake.)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, cardamom, and ginger.

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and gradually add the sugar, keeping mixture light. Add eggs 3 at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping sides of bowl several times to keep mixture uniform. Add vanilla. With mixer going, pour in molasses. Mixture might look broken, but that's ok. On low speed, gradually add sifted dry ingredients, mixing just until flour is incorporated. Place fruit mixture on top of batter, leaving any liquid at the bottom of fruit in the bowl. (Save the liquid and add to the brandy syrup.) Fold fruit into batter, taking care not to overmix. (Note: with this much batter, make sure your spatula is sturdy; otherwise, your hands are your best folding tools.)

Turn batter into pan, smooth the top, and bake for at least one hour, or until the middle top of cake is firm to the touch. The cake will be very dark on top and slightly sunken.

Let cake cool in pan. Invert cake onto large wax paper-covered board and back again onto another board. The paper should prevent the top of the cake from sticking to the board. With a skewer, poke several holes through the cake at 1" intervals. Begin brushing/tapping the brandy-sugar syrup evenly over the cake, allowing a few minutes for the syrup to soak in before brushing on more. If the cake seems moist enough, it may not be necessary to use all the syrup.

Wrap cake well in plastic wrap (or slide it into a large clean plastic bag) and allow to stand for at least 1 hour—or, preferably, a day or two, in a cool place. Slide cake carefully onto a large serving platter. (Or, for a smooth top: invert onto platter.) Keep the cake covered until presentation time.

This recipe makes about 20 cups of batter. Since an average loaf pan uses between 4 and 5 cups of batter, this recipe would make about 4 large loaf cakes. In 9" round pans: probably 5 or 6 layers. You get the idea, though: you can bake the batter in any size and shape. Butter and paper the pans, and fill them about 2/3 full for proper baking.

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