A Coconut Cake From Emily Dickinson

by Megan Sexton  ·  October 27, 2011

The Salt, NPR’s Food Blog, has posted a neat little article featuring a coconut cake recipe from Emily Dickinson herself! Apparently, poems were not the only things she penned—recipes were part of her repertoire as well. It is a little known fact that this reclusive poet loved to bake, and the article includes Dickinson’s original recipe as well as a “Retouched” version for the 21st century.

You can read the full article here. And here’s just a little “taste” of it:

Poet Emily Dickinson withdrew from society for most of her adult life. And yet, she was known to lower a basket full of cakes from the window of the home she rarely left to crowds of expectant children on the street below. Dickinson probably never met these children, yet she connected with them through her baking.

Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake is not an airy treat, but it is quick to make — just as Dickinson’s tightly packed poems are quick to read, though rich in their own right. Dickinson’s cakes were often gifts intended to please recipients, whoever they might be. Since several of my friends have food allergies, endeavoring to please them, I made an everything-free version of the cake (no gluten, dairy or fast sugar).

I took liberties with Dickinson’s original ingredients — the poet herself seemed partial to the creativity of baking, not the rules. “Spices fly/ In the Receipt” are the closing lines of one of Dickinson’s poems about food. In other words, ingredients are expressive.

Original Recipe:

1 cup coconut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

I used a different version of Dickinson’s recipe as my starting point, which was enclosed in a letter to the poet from a Mrs. Carmichael:

1 pound sugar –

1/2 – Butter –

1/2 – Flour –

6 eggs –

1 grated Cocoa Nut –

Either, or both, could be Dickinson’s “original” recipe for coconut cake. Neither recipe included directions, just the list of ingredients.

Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake, Retouched for the 21st Century

(This recipe was adapted and modified from the original — Letter #665 in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas Johnson, and is indebted to several measurement suggestions in Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as Cook.)

2 cups Coconut Secret® coconut sap sugar
1 cup Earth Balance® butter substitute
2 cups brown rice flour (Arrowhead Mills® gluten-free “Improved Texture” mix works well)
6 eggs (separate yolks and whites)

1 ½ to 2 cups shredded, unsweetened coconut (can also use flaked coconut, coarsely chopped)
1 cup coconut milk

Rather than make a simple icing, standard fare in the 19th-century, based partly on the ingredients I had lying around, I decided to go with this topping instead. It worked very well.

1-2 cups flaked coconut, unsweetened
½ cup orange blossom honey
Zest of four limes
Juice of two limes

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, blend butter-substitute and coconut sugar. Add brown rice flour and beaten egg yolks. Beat egg whites until slightly frothy and add to batter. Gradually add shredded coconut and coconut milk, blending all ingredients thoroughly. Spray a 9 x 13 baking dish with coconut oil. Pour batter into the greased dish (the baking dish should be half full). Bake for 25 minutes in a convection oven (probably 30-35 minutes in a regular oven). Mix the coconut-lime topping. Remove from heat, let cool for a few minutes, spread the topping evenly over the cake.