This is a literary post of sorts, one inspired by a conversation with my graduate students, who felt this was exactly what they wanted to see on the blog as the weather cooled, and the December break neared. Many don’t know that Emily Dickinson liked to bake–famously she would lower cakes out of her window to eager children below. In honour of the season, I decided to share her black fruitcake recipe. My thanks to Margery K. Eagan of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., who updated the instructions, ingredients, and measurements to suit a contemporary kitchen.
Have a bottle of brandy on hand—you’ll need 1/2 c. to pour over fruit plus approx. 1 cup more for cake-soaking syrup. Two large cardboard cake boards will be helpful if you are making a large cake.
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 brandy (approx. 1 cup) or to taste. The brandy can be a Cognac-type by itself, or a combination of flavors including amaretto or hazelnut liqueur. Your taste buds can guide you here. (See notes about storing any leftover syrup.)
1 3/4 lbs. raisins
8 oz. currants
8 oz. dried apricots, cut in 1/2″ pieces (size of raisins)
8 oz. pitted prunes, cut in 1/2″ pieces
2 oz. dried pears, cut in 1/2″ pieces
4 oz. pitted dates cut in 1/2″ pieces
In a large bowl, toss fruit with 1/2 c. 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 1/2″ 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.)
1 1/2 lbs. soft butter (salted or unsalted: if salted, don’t add salt to dry ingredients)
1 1/2 lbs. granulated sugar
13 eggs at room temperature
3/4 c. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 lbs. unbleached flour
4 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp. soda
1 1/2 tsp. salt (or none if using salted butter)
1 1/4 tsp. each cinnamon, cloves & mace
1 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/4 tsp. ginger
In a very large 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 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. (Note: if you want to present the cake with a smooth top, level the top of the cake with a serrated knife. It will be inverted later, making the bottom the top.) 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. Fresh greens and flowers around the cake add a festive touch.
Notes 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. Or, in a 12 x 2″ round, perhaps 2 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.
If freezing cakes: Remove cooled cakes from pans and wrap well. After thawing, and at least 1 hour before serving, brush/soak with brandy syrup.
Leftover syrup: Tightly-covered, the syrup will keep, refrigerated, for several weeks. If you’ve made small cakes and have frozen them, use the syrup as you need it.