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The Folger Spotlight

Make Emily Dickinson’s Black Birthday Cake with The SugaChef

Dark fruitcake with strawberries and apricots on top

Thursday, December 10, will mark Emily Dickinson‘s 190th birthday. That evening, at 7:30 pm EST, the Folger’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Series continues its 52nd season with a reading by poet Dorianne Laux in celebration of one of America’s most loved poets. This annual tradition is reimagined this year to include a virtual tour of the Dickinson home by Jane Wald, Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, co-sponsors of this online event.

After the reading, we would normally gather in the Folger’s Great Hall to enjoy a black birthday cake prepared by Padua Player, The SugaChef, based on one of Emily Dickinson’s own recipes. Since this year is a little different, Player has generously agreed to take us through the process so that you can create this delicious cake in your own kitchen. Happy baking!

Makes one 9inch tube or 8in round cake which serves 12-16
For a PDF version of the recipe, please click here.


  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup brandy, or more to taste


  • 12 ounces golden raisins
  • 4 ounces dried craisins
  • 4 ounces dried apricots, cut into small pieces
  • 4 ounces pitted dried prunes, cut into pieces the size of raisins
  • 2 ounces dried apples, diced into small pieces
  • 2 ounces pitted dates, diced into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup brandy


  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 orange zested and juiced ( use the juice for soaking the cake )
  • 6 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/4 cup molasses


For the syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat; cook, until the sugar dissolves. Let cool, pour into a container. Stir in the 1/2 cup of brandy, or more (to your taste). Cover and refrigerate.

For the fruit: Toss together the raisins, craisins, apricots, prunes, apples and dates with 1/4 cup brandy in a large bowl, until evenly moistened. Let stand for at least 1 hour, and preferably overnight.

For the cake:

  • Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease the 9inch tube pan (or 8in cake pan) with a baking spray.
  • Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and ginger in a mixing bowl.
  • Beat the butter in the very large bowl (5-quart) of a stand mixer on medium speed, until creamy. Gradually add the sugar, beating until the mixture is light in color and texture. Add the vanilla and orange zest. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well each time, scrape the bowl. On medium speed, pour in the molasses. The batter may look curdled, but it’s ok.
  • Gradually add the flour mixture and mix just until combined.
  • Drain the fruit and reserve the liquid for soaking the warm cake.
  • Reserve a few tablespoons of flour and toss with the fruit. Fold into the cake batter, but do not over-mix.
  • Pour the batter into the cake pan. Smooth the top. Bake for approximately 30-35 minutes. Using a cake tester or skewer insert it into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean the cake is done. The cake will be very dark on top and slightly sunken. Let the cake cool in the pan.
  • Use a skewer to poke holes in the cake into the top of the cake. Add the reserved liquid (and your reserved orange juice) to your brandy syrup. Begin brushing or pouring the brandy syrup evenly over each cake, allow the syrup to soak into the cake. I use about 3/4 cup of the reserved liquid.
  • Allow the cake to cool completely. Once cooled wrap the cake in plastic wrap.
  • Place the cake onto a serving platter and serve! You can fill the center with fruit and lightly dust the top with powdered sugar!

Thanks to Padua Player for creating this wonderful recipe and sharing it with us! We hope you will join us for the annual Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute this Thursday, December 10 at 7:30pm (EST). This virtual event will include a reading by poet Dorianne Laux and a tour of Emily Dickinson’s home by Jane Wald. To find out more and reserve your place, visit our website at or call the box office at 202.544.7077.