Emily Dickinson's Black Cake

Emily Dickinson was a poet, and nobody knew it. Well, family and a handful of her closest acquaintances knew she wrote a little, but few had ever seen her verses, and even fewer realized what they were or what they meant.

Besides, her poetry broke all rules.

The only known portrait of Emily Dickinson.

They contained short lines.

The punctuation was unconventional.

And so was her capitalization.

Very few of her poems even had titles.

They were simply random and passionate thoughts, pulled from deep within her troubled soul.

Emily Dickinson wrote of death and her fear of death, especially the death of those close to her.

It wasn’t dying she dreaded.

It was the loss of someone she loved.

After her Amherst Academy principal, Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly at the age of twenty-five, she wrote: “Some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep – the hour of evening is sad – it was once my study hours – my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey.”

A paper and pen became her closest allies.

Emily Dickinson's writing desk.

A friend, a young attorney introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth, and his poetry, she wrote, “touched the secret spring” in her life. And William Shakespeare became a driving influence. After reading his plays, she wrote: “Why clasp any hand but this? Why is any other book needed?”

So Emily Dickinson sat alone in her room.

And she wrote.

Some were letters.

Most were poems.

All reflected an intellectual curiosity and emotional intensity found in a broad range of human experiences: pain, grief, love, nature, joy, and art.

Emily Dickinson was regarded as odd and eccentric and the most misunderstood of poets. She wore white. She would rather write to friends than visit with them eye to eye. Her bedroom became her sanctuary. She left it only to venture into the kitchen and bake her cakes and cookies.

Emily Dickinson kept her life to herself.

She kept her poems the same way.

She did publish eight hundred of them in small, handmade booklets, but she never tried to sell them or even show them to anyone. They were her private collection, and she kept them private. A few poems were published in newspapers, but they were almost always printed anonymously.

It was not until after her death in 1886 that a younger sister chanced to run across her cache of eighteen hundred poems.  Her first extensive collection of poetry was not published until 1890, and her verses were heavily edited.

The scholars read her.

They did not understand her.

She did not write the way poets should write, they decreed.

And they scorned and ridiculed her.

Even worse, they ignored her work.

A complete and unaltered collection of Emily Dickinson poems did not see the light of day until 1955. Only then did scholars understand her uncanny ability to distill “amazing sense” from “ordinary meanings.”

Sure, her lines were short and concise.

But they were compelling as well, and, at long last, Emily Dickinson’s poetry was finally considered to be among the finest in the English language.

The Emily Dickinson Museum and homestead of the major American poet are located in Amherst, Massachusetts.


Emily Dickinson Black cake


2 Pounds flour (8 cups)

2 tablespoons baking soda

2 nutmegs (4-6 tablespoons ground)

5 tablespoons total: cloves, mace, cinnamon

1 ½ tablespoons salt

2 Pounds butter (4 cups)

2 Pounds sugar (4 cups)

19 eggs

½ pint brandy (1 cup)

½ pint molasses (2 cup)

5 Pounds raisins

1 ½ Pounds citron

1 ½ pounds currents


  1. Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees. Butter a large angel food pan.
  2. Sift together flour, baking soda, spices, salt. In a large separate bowl, beat butter and sugar, adding eggs, a few at a time, and beating after each addition.
  3. Add brandy, mix well, and add flour mixture, again mixing well.
  4. Add molasses and sprinkle in fruit slowly as you stir. Pour into a greased pan.
  5. Bake for 3 hours, then remove cake from pan to cool. Wrap the cake in cheesecloth dipped in brandy.
  6. Store in an airtight container for several weeks, dipping in more brandy from time to time.

Note: Slow baking and thorough basting are the key.

Note: This recipe yields 1 large cake, usually baked for the family at Christmas. You can cut the recipe in half.


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