The Messy History of Emily Dickinson's Black Cake Recipe

During her life in New England, Emily Dickinson was better known for her baking than she was for her poetry. One of her recipes, for black cake, or Caribbean Christmas cake, was scribbled on a note that is now in the hands of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, and it has become a tradition in recent years for Dickinson fans to bake it for her birthday in December.

A relative of British fruit cake, black cake depends on the sugar English colonizers forced the Indigenous and African people they enslaved to produce. The Caribbean version of the cake usually includes rum and either molasses or burnt sugar, also known as browning, a bitter liquid that results from scalding white sugar over a high flame. “You can taste the slight bitterness at the back of your throat,” says Canadian poet M. nourbeSe philip, who wrote an essay on Dickinson’s black cake. For many Caribbean families, preparing the cake is a joyful annual tradition. philip watched her mother bake the cake growing up in Trinidad and Tobago. After she immigrated to Canada, her mother shipped her a homemade black cake every year.

The recipe and its ingredients were likely brought to New England from the Caribbean along the horrific triangular trade. Dickinson’s version uses molasses and swaps the rum out for brandy. Both Dickinson’s and Caribbean recipes are dense with dried fruit, including raisins, currants, and candied citron in Dickinson’s case. And they’re fragrant with nutmeg, cinnamon, and mace, brought to the Caribbean by colonizers from the spice coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Malabar.

Dickinson's recipe calls for 19 eggs and will feed an army, but there is also a scaled down version with more accessible ingredients. The article at Atlas Obscura has more, though, as it looks at what is revealed about Emily Dickinson by the recipes, notes, and letters she left behind.

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Scalding sugar? It is called caramelizing. Second time this week. Unlike the honey, there is no need to boil it first so it is heated directly in a pan. Pro tips: 1. Do not look away. 2. The fastest way to cool it and prevent burning is to reserve some of the sugar and add it once the rest is at the right color.
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