What Emily Dickinson Ate: Coconut Cake

5 years ago
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God gave a Loaf to every Bird —
But just a Crumb — to Me —
I dare not eat it — tho’ I starve —
My poignant luxury —

To own it — touch it —
Prove the feat — that made the Pellet mine —
Too happy — for my Sparrow’s chance —
For Ampler Coveting —

It might be Famine — all around —
I could not miss an Ear —
Such Plenty smiles upon my Board —
My Garner shows so fair —

I wonder how the Rich — may feel —
An Indiaman — An Earl —
I deem that I — with but a Crumb —
Am Sovereign of them all —

~ Emily Dickinson

A while back, I blogged about poet Emily Dickinson’s lesser-known passion—cooking and baking. I was able to track down one of her actual recipes, a Coconut Cake—or, as Emily spelled it, Cocoanut Cake. December 10 is Emily’s birthday. What better way to celebrate this brilliant American poet than by baking her Coconut Cake recipe?

Here is a scan of Emily's hand-written recipe (or, as recipes were called in Emily’s time, the “receipt”). It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve transcribed it below:

Image courtesy of Poet’s House c/o President and Fellows of Harvard College

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

1 cup cocoanut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoonful soda
1 teaspoonful cream of tartar

This makes one half the rule–

No baking instructions are given, but anybody with a basic understanding of baking techniques should have no trouble with this recipe. It’s a simple cake or “quick bread,” meaning it uses baking powder as a leavening agent. The mixture of cream of tartar and baking soda produces baking powder; you can combine the cream of tartar and soda as written, or simply substitute 1 1/2 tsp baking powder. I’ve written out detailed instructions for baking the cake below so you can try it yourself.

Regarding the phrase “one half the rule,” it would make sense that Emily would want a recipe in half-portion. A loaf-sized cake would be easier to wrap up and send than a full cake. Though Emily was reclusive and rarely left her home, she was known to send food gifts to friends and acquaintances. In Emily’s obituary, her brother’s wife and lifelong friend Susan Dickinson describes her sister’s fondness for sending out care packages:

Very few in the village knew Miss Emily personally, except among the older in habitants, although the fact of her seclusion and intellectual brilliancy was one of the familiar (Amherst) traditions. There are many homes among the classes into which her dainty treasures of fruit and flowers and almost ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent, that will forever miss those dainty traces of her unselfish devotion…

The Dickinson Children, painted by Otis Allen Bullard ca 1840. From the Dickinson Room at Houghton Library, Harvard University. Emily is on the left—this is one of the few surviving images of the poet.

I made this recipe the old-fashioned way, beating the butter by hand and using an antique flour sifter to get into the spirit of the project. I stopped short of grating the coconut by hand. Grating fresh coconut is time consuming, so I used dried grated coconut instead of fresh. If you want to take that shortcut too, soak the dried coconut in warm water until soft and drain well before integrating it into the batter. You can also use soft sweetened baker’s coconut, if you wish—this cake is not overly sweet, so the extra sweetness from the baker’s coconut wouldn’t hurt.

Next time I bake this, I’ll probably use a large loaf pan. The medium loaf pan (8 inches) compressed the cake batter a bit, which made it billow up on top. Not a big deal, though (in fact, the effect is kind of pretty). The texture is not light or airy, it’s more like a dense pound cake. Using cake flour instead of regular flour would lighten up the texture a bit. My favorite part of this cake is the lovely golden crust, which gives it enough structure for dunking in coffee or tea. You might want to bake one yourself and give it to a literary friend as a holiday gift!

Thank you to Stephen and Christina at Poet’s House for their help with this post.

Servings: Makes 1 loaf cake (about 8 servings)
Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar + 1/2 tsp baking soda OR 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup shredded coconut
  • Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour and cream of tartar + baking soda OR baking powder.
  • In a medium mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together till the mixture is light and fluffy, and the sugar is well incorporated into the butter. I did this by hand, the old fashioned way, like Emily Dickinson would have. It took several minutes. You can do it much faster with an electric mixer.
  • Mix in the eggs, then the milk.
  • Add liquid ingredients to dry and stir till just incorporated. A thick batter will form. Do not overmix.
  • Fold in the shredded coconut. If your shredded coconut is dry (not fresh), rehydrate it with a little warm water and drain well before mixing it into the batter. Again, don't overmix.
  • Spread the batter into a small loaf pan.
  • Bake the cake for 50-60 minutes on the middle rack of your oven till cooked through and golden brown around the edges. Test with a skewer or toothpick for doneness in a few places-- if the toothpick comes out clean (no wet batter sticking to it), it's done.
  • The cake is not overly sweet, which was perfect for me (I don't like my desserts too sweet). If you want to sweeten it up, use a bit more sugar, or use sweetened coconut instead of regular coconut. Enjoy!
For step-by-step cooking photos, click here.

My name is Tori Avey. I'm a food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of two cooking websites: The Shiksa in the Kitchen and The History Kitchen. I explore the story behind the food– why we eat what we eat, how the foods of different cultures have evolved, and how yesterday’s food can inspire us in the kitchen today. I'm a regular contributor to PBS Food. The Shiksa in the Kitchen was recently named the 2012 IACP People’s Choice Award winner for Best Culinary Website.