Jessye Norman Takes the Cake!

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.