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Literary Recipe: Emily Dickinson’s Gingerbread

Food and literature form a lovely partnership. The former stimulates the senses (taste, touch, smell) and sustains the body, the latter the imagination. Together, they offer nourishment for body, mind, and spirit.

One compelling instance: New England poet Emily Dickinson. Dickinson was known as an accomplished and enthusiastic baker who valued time spent in the kitchen not only cooking but also talking and bonding with family. And the space appears to have been productive for her art as well, given that many of her poems were penned on the backs of recipes or food packaging.

One favorite among her culinary treats, quite fitting for the season: her gingerbread, which she is believed to have lowered in baskets to neighborhood children gathered below her window.

Gingerbread has a long history in Europe, dating back some 1,000 years, and settlers to the U.S. brought their varied recipes with them. By the 19th century, when Dickinson was baking her gingerbread, it was a common food. Her recipe includes molasses, unsurprising since recipes were adapted to make use of local ingredients.

Happy baking!

Ingredients:

1 quart flour

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup cream

1 tablespoon ginger

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon salt

About 1 cup of molasses (Dickinson's recipe reads "make up with molasses," which guides at the Emily Dickinson Homestead discovered, through experimentation, works at "a cup or so.")

Directions (as they originally appeared in Dickinson's handwriting):

"Cream the butter and mix with lightly whipped cream. Sift dry ingredients together and combine with other ingredients. The dough is stiff and needs to be pressed into whatever pan you choose. A round or small square pan is suitable. The recipe also fits perfectly into a cast iron muffin pan, if you happen to have one which makes oval cakes."

Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

Dickinson most likely also glazed her gingerbread, possible in one of three ways: (1) by beating an egg yolk and brushing it over the bread before baking; (2) by moistening the dough with cold water and sifting white sugar over the top before baking; or (3) by removing the bread from the oven before it is fully baked, brushing the top with a well-beaten egg white, sifting sugar then sprinkling a few drops of water on top, and returning it into the oven to bake until done.

Photo credit: ralph and jenny

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