Food Friday: Cake with Emily Dickinson


Merry Christmas from the Spy Test Kitchens.
Happy Winter from our muse, Emily Dickinson.

We have channeled Emily Dickinson’s recipe for her famous Coconut Cake. It is a simple recipe, especially today with all the devices making work in the kitchen so easy. The temperature in my gas oven never wavers. The KitchenAid mixer makes short work of processing butter and sugar and flour. The water in the kitchen faucet gets hot quickly with a tankless water heater, so I can wash the mixing bowls without toting water in from a well, and heating it on the stove. I don’t have a housekeeper, either. Dickinson not only enjoyed the baking process, but she wrote as she baked, and as she stepped around the household help.

Imagine baking a dream cake for Christmas, and thoughtfully writing a poem on the back of the recipe. Such a New England gesture – using the other side of a perfectly good piece of paper – use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without… I am usually stumbling over the ever-hopeful dog and listening to NPR, instead of thinking lofty thoughts. Dickinson once wrote a poem on the back of a wrapper of Parisian baking chocolate. Elegant.

The Emily Dickinson Museum says, “The kitchen appears to be one of the rooms where Dickinson felt most comfortable, perhaps most at home.” This is her poem on the back of the Coconut Cake recipe:

The Things that never can come back, are several —

The Things that never can come back, are several —
Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —
Though Joys — like Men — may sometimes make a Journey —
And still abide —
We do not mourn for Traveler, or Sailor,
Their Routes are fair —
But think enlarged of all that they will tell us
Returning here —
“Here!” There are typic “Heres” —
Foretold Locations —
The Spirit does not stand —
Himself — at whatsoever Fathom
His Native Land —

The handwritten recipe is slightly different in the cookbook published by the Emily Dickinson Museum – Profile of the Poet as Cook.

“2 cups sugar (1 lb.)
1 cup butter (1/2 lb.)
2 cups flour
6 eggs
1 grated coconut
1 cup coconut milk

Cream butter and sugar. Gradually add flour, then beaten egg yolks. Beat whites separately and fold in along with some grated coconut and coconut milk. Retain some coconut for coating the cake after baking and the cake has been glazed with a simple sugar icing. Fill cake pans half full and bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes. This is a very rich, heavy cake.”

Who grated the coconut? Where did one acquire a coconut in Amherst in the late 19th century? Apparently at Cutler’s General Store in Amherst, where the Dickinson family account shows purchases of both Caribbean coconut and French chocolate. The global marketplace had arrived in Western Massachusetts, and the Dickinsons were eager consumers.

Dickinson was enjoyed baking and sharing those treats. Famously she lowered a basket of gingerbread from her window to some neighborhood children. “Love’s oven,” she wrote in a note accompanying a packet of her caramels, “is warm”.

Go out to your kitchen and whip up a little bit of baking to share with the neighbors. Spread the word of Emily Dickinson’s sweet exotic cake. And warm yourself in front of the stove, and take pencil to paper. Enjoy!

“Then ring, ring, Christmas bells,
Till your sweet music o’er the kingdom swells,
To warn the people to respect the morn
That Christ their Saviour was born.”
-Emily Dickinson

Be sure to watch the delightful film, A Quiet Passion. It is an exquisite view of the poet’s life.

About Jean Sanders

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