Tea with Emily Dickinson

  • October 23, 2002 - 11:00 PM

Within the first two minutes of "The Belle of Amherst," the luminous one-woman play currently lighting up the stage at St. Paul's Park Square Theatre, Emily Dickinson is revealed as not only a gifted poet, but an accomplished baker, too.

The play -- written by William Luce and starring Linda Kelsey -- opens with the eccentric Miss Dickinson extolling her prowess in the kitchen and rattling off the ingredients of her signature Black Cake. To say that the recipe is something of an undertaking is a bit of an understatement.

"I get the first laugh after I say, 'Two pounds of butter,' " said Kelsey. "And, when I get to '19 eggs' and 'you'd better leave it in the oven for six to seven hours,' I get a lot of laughs."

Dickinson's penchant for tea and Black Cake inspired Park Square development director Michael-jon Pease to present a formal tea as a pre-performance fundraiser. The event, to be held Saturday, will feature an informal meet-and-greet with Kelsey along with tea goodies such as scones, finger sandwiches and of course, a contemporary version of Dickinson's celebrated pastry.

It probably takes a front-row seat -- and a pair of finely calibrated opera glasses -- to determine that the Black Cake Kelsey eats on stage isn't the genuine article. It's a prop substitute. Chocolate, perhaps?

"I can't give away all our secrets," she said. "But it's very black looking, and quite delicious." Why not the real thing? "I don't think the expense associated with five pounds of raisins is in the Park Square budget," Kelsey said.

But counterfeit or legit, the cake is a key plot device. In the show's final moments, Dickinson pours tea and shares a few last thoughts with the audience. "Oh, and when you make my cake, please tell me how you like it," she says. "And when next we meet -- I'll give you my recipe for gingerbread! Gingerbread! Now there's a word to lift your hat to."

If you go

The formal-tea fundraiser for Park Square Theatre is Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at Park Square, 20 W. 7th Pl., St. Paul. Cost is $25; a ticket to the evening performance is an additional $25 to $30. Call 651-291-7005 for reservations.

Emily Dickinson's Black Cake


Makes 2 (9-inch) loaves.

This contemporary version of Emily Dickinson's treasured cake was adapted from a recipe provided by Michael-jon Pease of Park Square Theatre. Parts of this dense, heavy cake can be made up to a day in advance. Candied citron -- a processed citrus peel -- is available in the candied fruit section of most supermarkets.

• 4 c. (about 1 lb.) raisins

• 2 1/4 c. (about 2/3 lb.) currants

• 1 c. (about 1/3 lb.) candied citron

• 1 c. (about 1/3 lb.) dried apricots, cut in 1/4-in. pieces (size of raisins) • 1/2 c. brandy

• 1/2 lb. (2 sticks) butter, plus extra for pans

• 2 c. sugar

• 5 eggs

• 1/4 c. dark molasses

• 2 c. sifted flour

• 1/2 tsp. baking soda

• 1 tsp. ground cloves

• 1 tsp. ground mace

• 1 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/8 tsp. ground cardamom

1/8 tsp. ground ginger

• 1/2 tsp. salt (or none if using salted butter)

In a large bowl, mix together raisins, currants, citron and apricots. Pour brandy over fruit and let stand while preparing batter (or an hour, or overnight; the longer it stands, the richer the flavor).

Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Place a shallow pan with at least 1 inch water on the bottom rack of oven. Line bottoms of two 9-by 5-inch loaf pans with parchment paper and generously butter sides and parchment paper.

In a large bowl using an electric mixer on medium-high, beat butter, adding sugar gradually until light and creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping sides of bowl and beating mixture well after each addition. Add molasses and beat well. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and salt (add salt only if using unsalted butter). Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add sifted ingredients to mixing bowl, mixing until just combined.

Strain any remaining brandy from fruit, discard brandy and fold fruit into batter. Pour batter into loaf pans, smooth top with a spatula and bake on oven's middle rack for 2 1/2 hours, occasionally replenishing pan to maintain 1-inch water level. Remove pan of water and bake an additional 1/2 hour. Remove loaf pans to a rack and cool completely. Carefully loosen sides of cake from pan with a thin knife blade. Invert cake to a wax-covered board, then invert to top-side up on a second wax-covered board. Wrap in fresh parchment paper and store in a cool, dark place until ready to serve.

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