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Jessye Norman Takes the Cake!

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The following is a guest post from Dr. Stephanie Akau and the team processing Jessye Norman’s papers.

Since many of us spent time baking during the pandemic, I was excited to find in the Papers of American soprano Jessye Norman several fundraising cookbooks to which Norman had contributed a recipe for her “Quick Dessert Cake.”

Published cake recipe
Jessye Norman, “Quick Dessert Cake” from Recipes of Note, Encore compiled by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, 1994. Jessye Norman Papers, Music Division.

In the course of organizing the files relating to Norman’s numerous performances, I observed her strenuous travel schedule and was surprised she would ever have time to cook! I wanted to try out this recipe, and I enlisted the rest of our processing team to try it out as well. We made various adjustments according to our individual taste preferences. We hope you enjoy reading about our experiences.

Melissa Capozio Jones, archives processing technician:

Slice of cake on plate supported by hand below
Melissa Capozio Jones. Jessye Norman’s cake, 2021.

I’m not normally a huge fan of desserts that lack chocolate, but this one was a hit! To be fair, I changed a lot of the recipe, so I’m not sure we can still accurately call it Jessye Norman’s cake. I substituted dates for the raisins, and switched out the Grand Marnier in favor of orange extract and fresh orange juice, and the self-rising flour for cake flour. The recipe also calls for you to combine the wet and dry ingredients all together into a bowl with 3 to 4 ounces of milk and then mix until combined. I decided to take some artistic liberties and mix my dry ingredients before adding the wet ingredients, and allowed my butter and eggs to come to room temperature before adding them. The citrus flavor of the cake is fantastic, a perfectly light cake that tastes like summer. My husband recommends serving the cake with lemon curd buttercream which he discovered was the perfect addition, although you really can’t go wrong with the recipe’s suggestion of ice cream. With apologies to Ms. Norman’s original recipe, I think version 2.0 has earned a spot in my recipe book.

Piece of cake on plate with strawberries and whipped topping.
Jessica Grimmer. Jessye Norman’s cake, 2021.


Jessica Grimmer, University of Maryland practicum student:

This recipe is the kind I love to work with–not overly prescriptive and with plenty of room to “eyeball it.” After last summer’s grocery shortages, I’m happily leaning into adapting recipes to what I’ve already got in my pantry and kitchen. To that end, I used all-purpose flour, especially because the recipe already calls for baking powder and salt. I also replaced the lemon essence with the zest and juice from one small lemon. As for the raisins, I think they’re great in trail mix but don’t have a place in my baked goods, so I omitted them entirely. After adding enough milk for a fairly runny batter, I poured it into a metal quarter-sheet-cake pan. It baked beautifully in just 35 minutes! It came out quite fluffy, with a pancake-like texture and crumb. I topped mine with fresh strawberries and plenty of whipped cream.


Stephanie Akau, archivist:

Overhead view of round cake on a plate with single slice removed.
Stephanie Akau. Jessye Norman’s cake, 2021.

My first attempt at this recipe did not go well. I baked it for 45 minutes and it came out of the oven dry and overdone. I suspect this was because I used all-purpose rather than self-rising flour as the recipe instructed, yielding a shorter cake that did not need to bake as long. It made the kitchen smell so good that I was unaware it was over-baking! It did not go to waste though. At the suggestion of a colleague, I turned it into a delicious bread pudding that paired well with vanilla ice cream.

My second attempt went much better. I used more milk, substituted dried cranberries for the raisins and the juice and zest of one orange for the Grand Marnier, which I used up in the first attempt. I baked it for 35 minutes and finished it with a glaze made from confectioner’s sugar, milk, and almond extract (not pictured). The cake was moist, flavorful, and “quick” as the title suggests. It received positive reviews from my colleagues, always enthusiastic taste-testers. I recommend eating it with ice cream while listening to Norman sing Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder.


Shantel Lambert, archives processing technician:

Chocolate frosted cupcake inside single serving container
Shantel Lambert. Jessye Norman’s cake, 2021.

This is definitely not a cake to make with help from eager little ones who had me forgetting ingredients! I made cupcakes instead of a cake. I noticed that Norman said to add milk, but not precisely how much. So, I texted Stephanie asking about the amount. Then, my little one had the mixer on the highest setting and batter went everywhere. After mixing, I went back over the list and realized we missed the butter, so we melted it and mixed it in. We substituted all-purpose flour for the self-rising flour, added chocolate chips instead of almonds and raisins, and used orange extract instead of Grand Marnier and lemon essence. My little one licked the bowl clean as she patiently waited for the cupcakes to come out the oven. As we waited, they started to smell delicious. We cooked them for 20 minutes and the toothpick came out clean. The cupcakes were really moist, and my husband suggested that the next time we make them to use a peanut butter icing to compliment the chocolate chips.

Try out the recipe, and let us know what you think! Jessye Norman’s papers will be available for research later this year.

If you would like to learn more about Jessye Norman in her own words, view her conversation with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden (May 16, 2019).

For other “In the Muse” blog posts about recipes found in the Music Division Collections, see Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters and Niccolò Paganini’s Ravioli in the Cooking up History series.

Comments (5)

  1. What a wonderful post! I may try the original AND all the variations – probably starting with Shantel’s, because … chocolate.

  2. What a fun glimpse into Norman’s personal life! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Singing praises about these “Variations on a theme by Jessye Norman”. Fun! But I love the Grand Marnier-raisins-almond combination! Elegant and interesting, like the Diva. This recipe and variations a keeper.!

    And I love you, LC archivists! Thank you for these fun and warm notes. Variations seem apt, no? since Ms. Norman was known for flexibility in her range of rôles, from lieder to Wagner to bel canto to 20th century opera to gospel, and the extraordinary range and depth of her gorgeous voice? I can imagine her quickly reaching into the cabinets for ingredients, stirring, and humming distractedly, “Wo war ich?” from Ariadne auf Naxos

    When I first glanced at the recipe, I was also surprised at the self-rising flour AND the baking powder, 3 T no less. Even if the almonds, which are heavy, are chopped coarsely so Ms. Norman thought the batter needed extra oompf, like taking one of her amazing long breaths, it seems as if the cake would still taste like baking powder.

    Then, I wondered, is adding 2 ounces of Grand Marnier the reason? does alcohol in general, and heavy, syrupy, and divine Grand Marnier depress the rising so that the Diva herself had trouble with her first attempt, and added extra baking powder the next time? Imagine adding two ounces of vanilla to your cake batter. That would be a whole small bottle. Not edible, unless you added it to sugar syrup, but great if you are showing your house to a prospective buyer.

    As for letting the batter sit for ten minutes, as mentioned, this is meant to be a quick sweet for busy hostesses to whip up. Perhaps Ms.Norman had seen a similar recipe that called for extra time and forethought, with raisins previously soaked in the Grand Marnier. That would definitely weigh down the batter, thus the extra rising agent. And in that case, recipes typically call for tossing the fruit into a bit of flour first to help avoid a soggy mess. An extra step, and little bowl to wash.

    I noticed most of the baker-archivists used a round cake pan, except for the fun family attempt at cupcakes. At first glance, I assumed this batter, with 1 3/4 cups of flour and brown instead of white granulated sugar, with raisins and nuts folded onto it, was similar to what the French call “cake,” made in a loaf pan with assorted dried fruits and cherries, as in fruit cake, and sliced for breakfast or afternoon tea/coffee. Similar to our 9 X 5 baking powder loaves, baked for maybe an hour at 350F, like banana nut, but not quite as heavy, like a light coffee cake.

    So I will test my assumptions and guesses, and make a French-style Jessye Norman “cake” in a loaf pan, though my variation will also be with all purpose unbleachec flour, and with raisins steeped in the liqueur, a step her hectic schedule would not accommodate.

    As for further explorations of recipes from musical geniuses, I draw the line at removing the skin from the calf’s brain after boiling it, or other organ meat treats, as in Paganini’s Red Book Ravioli.

    Thanks again.

  4. Sorry, 3 t baking powder, not T, tablespoons. Still, I feel self-rising flour has a chemical taste, even without added baking powder, that even Grand Marnier may not mask. It is handy for quick biscuits and breakfast breads, though!

    Also, this is a time when lucky Euro bakers typically add orange flower water, a richer, more subtle flavor than our lemon and orange extracts. Why I liked Stephanie’s orange juice and zest, and almond extract glaze.

  5. I firmly believe that baking is an art, science, and skill. And it scares me to death 🙂 Thankx for sharing all the different baking experiences with the recipe. It was really fun to read and has given me courage to try my hand at the recipe.

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