Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 5, 2019 20:06:59 GMT -5
The Christmas ‘Black Cake’
The “Black Cake” comes from a famous, reclusive poet prone to dark moods. While there are still many Americans who recognize the name Emily Dickinson (above) for her stunning poetry, only a few know she was also a fantastic baker who not only baked for her family, but also sent her cakes and breads to friends accompanied by odd notes.
In 1937, critic R.P. Blackmur wrote, “... she was a private poet who wrote as indefatigably as some women cook or knit.” That can be turned around: She was a private cook who baked as indefatigably as she wrote. And one of her favorite delicacies was her Black Cake.
Emily Dickinson was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Mass., on Dec. 10, 1830. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer and trustee of Amherst College, and her mother, Emily Norcross, was a chronically-ill homebody who spent decades bedridden. Emily had a brother and sister, Austin and Lavinia, and they all grew up in a large home on North Pleasant Street in Amherst, where she lived all her life. When Austin married one of Emily’s friends, his father built a house for them next to the family homestead.
Emily attended Amherst Academy for seven years, and moved on to Mount Holyoke (then Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary). Whether troubled by depression, ill health or homesickness, after only 10 months, her father brought her home. She then helped manage the household, handling most of the kitchen chores and caring for her mother, while Lavinia did the marketing and housekeeping. Neither sister married and through the years, Emily became increasingly reclusive. By the time Emily had reached her 30s, she seldom left the house. Later, Lavinia said their mother required constant attention, which Emily provided.
Of course, this doesn’t explain why she gave gingerbread to some neighborhood children by lowering a basket from a second-floor window. Or why she insisted on speaking with visitors through the door. Perhaps she developed agoraphobia. Or maybe she just didn’t want the outside world interfering with her writing.
The Black Cake started in England as a fruit or plum cake, i.e., a cake created from dried or fresh fruit. As Bruce Kraig explains in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, English women in the early 1800s made their plum cakes darker by using treacle: a thick, sticky dark syrup created from partially-refined sugar.
The new darker cake spread to the British colony of Jamaica, where it became even darker and much more inebriating. Before long, it had made itself to the United States and in 1832, Lydia Maria Child recommended using molasses – also created during the sugar-refining process. (Some say treacle is merely another name for molasses, others disagree.) “A little molasses makes it dark colored, which is desirable,” Child wrote. However, she didn’t call it a Black Cake, she called it a wedding cake and added icing. (Prince Charles and Diana Spencer served a tiered fruitcake at their 1982 wedding that lasted quite a long time. An auction house offered a piece of it for sale in 2018 for $1,200.)
In the Caribbean, Black Cake is more of a Christmas than wedding cake and for many, the celebration of the birth of Christ wouldn’t be complete without a slice of the dark, rich rum-laden delicacy.
Some insist it takes at least a year to make a proper Black Cake that gets it’s distinctive black coloring from burnt sugar. Another necessary ingredient is rum – lots of it! In other words, if you eat a lot of Black Cake and don’t become intoxicated, it doesn’t have enough rum.
Emily Dickinson learned to bake bread at the age of 14. In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, saleratus (baking powder), etc., with a great deal of grace. I advise you if you don’t know how to make the staff of life to learn with dispatch.” Over time, she became an accomplished baker in addition to a poet, writing some of her poems on kitchen paper and one, she wrote on the back of a recipe for a coconut cake. And she loved it. The kitchen, with its pale green walls illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the yellow windowsills, was her favorite room in her Amherst home (above).
Emily was such a good cook her father got to the point he refused to eat bread baked by anyone else and in 1856, her rye-and-Indian bread took second prize at the Amherst Agricultural Fair.
In 1883, when Emily was in her early 50s, she sent her recipe for Black Cake along with a bouquet of flowers to Nellie Sweetser, her neighbor.
And in June of the following year, she collapsed in her kitchen from what was believed to be a nervous breakdown. “I was making a loaf of cake ... when I saw a great darkness coming and knew no more until late at night,” she wrote. Her condition continued to deteriorate until her death from Bright’s Disease (inflammation of the kidneys) on May 15, 1886.
In 1976, William Luce’s play about Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst, opened on Broadway and Julie Harris, who played the starring role, won a Tony for her performance. In the play, Emily Dickinson recites the actual recipe for a Black Cake: “two pounds of flour, two pounds of sugar, two pounds of butter, nineteen eggs, five pounds of raisins, one-and-a-half pounds of currants, one-and-a-half pounds of citron, one half-pint of brandy – I never use Father’s best – one half-pint of molasses, two nutmegs, five teaspoons of cloves, mace and cinnamon, and – oh, yes, two teaspoons of soda, and one-and-a-half teaspoons of salt.”
(Nineteenth-century bakers did a lot of baking at one time, often setting aside an entire day for the time-consuming chore.)
Then Emily goes on to tell the audience to beat the butter and sugar together, add the 19 eggs one at a time without beating. Beat again, adding the brandy alternately with the flour, soda, spices and salt, which have all been sifted together. Then add molasses. Take the raisins and citrons and gently sprinkle into the batter. Bake for three hours if you use cake pans, six or seven if you use a milk pan.
Following is a more modern – and smaller – version of the Black Cake, but remember it has to age, so make your cake ahead of time. There is also a book called Baking Emily Dickinson's Black Cake.
1 pound pitted prunes
1 pound raisins
1 pound dried currants
1 pound dried cherries, de-seeded
4 ounces mixed dried citrus peel
2 cups cherry brandy (Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine is an apt substitute)
1 quart dark rum
2½ cups granulated sugar
½ cup boiling water
1 pound unsalted butter, plus more for preparing the pans
1 pound dark brown sugar
2 limes, zested
3 teaspoons vanilla essence
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon Angostura bitters
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
In a large, air-tight container, combine prunes, raisins, currants, cherries and citrus peel, all the brandy and 3 cups of the rum. Stir to combine and set aside for at least 3 days and up 3 months.
When ready to bake, working in batches, place the alcohol-saturated fruit in a food processor. Slowly pulse to a rough paste, ensuring some of the fruit remains somewhat intact. If required, add additional brandy to thin the consistency. Continue this process until all the fruit has been processed. Set aside.
Next is the “browning”: In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, add the granulated sugar and stir with a wooden spoon until melted. Continue stirring until sugar darkens. It will smoke – don’t panic. When the sugar is almost black, carefully stir in the boiling water. Caution: it will spatter, so turn off heat.
Prepare cake pans with butter and a double layer of parchment paper. Preheat oven to 250°F. (Note: Because this cake is so dense, it seldom rises. Accordingly, relatively shallow baking pans are necessary).
In a stand mixer or by hand, cream the butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, then the lime zest, essences and bitters. Transfer this mixture to a very large bowl. Then, in a separate bowl combine the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg. Gently fold the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Stir in the fruit and a ¼ cup of browning. The batter should be dark brown – if it’s too light, add additional browning, a tablespoon at the time.
Divide batter among prepared cake pans. The batter will not rise very much, so fill pans a hair off the top. Bake for one hour, then reduce heat to 225°F. Continue to bake for 2½ to 3 hours longer. Check for completion using a tester that should come out clean when inserted. Allow the cakes to cool on a wire rack.
Ten (10) minutes after the cakes have been retrieved from the oven and cooling on the wire rack, brush the tops with more rum and allow it to soak into the cake. Continue this process approximately every 30 minutes while the cakes cool.
The cake can be served one small slice at a time, as is customary in the Caribbean. To store, wrap cake in wax paper first, then tinfoil. These cakes will keep up to a month in a cool, dry place.
Sources: New England Historical Society and Brigid Ransome Washington, Food52, December 19, 2018.