Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake and Funerals

How do I get from funerals to Emily Dickinson to coconut cake?

Emily Dickinson's coconut cake

A slice of Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake and served on my grandmother’s plate.

Reading about the sad family story of Edward Kaser, I noticed in the obituary for his 17-year-old son a thank you from the family for kindnesses of friends and family.  That, of course, would have included food brought in.  Ahh, I thought, surely there must be a recipe I could share for funeral food.

Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality.Emily Dickinson

Actually, a book on funeral food (Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World) classifies Mennonite raisin pie as funeral food. That might come as a surprise to the Badertschers who baked grandma Badertscher’s raisin nut pie or the people who attended weddings with raisin pie.

And then I thought of Emily Dickinson, the poet who wrote so often of death and who was known in Amherst for her baking (surely by people who did not even know she wrote poetry).  I have tried Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake and am willing to bet that she toted that to funerals.

“She died–this was the way she died;
And when her breath was done,
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun.
Her little figure at the gate
The angels must have spied,
Since I could never find her
Upon the mortal side.” Emily Dickinson

The Cocoanut Cake Controversy

While researching Emily’s Black Cake, I came across an article about her Cocoanut Cake. It turned out that the spelling of coconut was not the only controversy the recipe stirred up.

When it comes to anything that Ms. Dickinson did, her avid fans will defend to the death their own points of view about what is right and what is not. They don’t stop with arguing about the meaning of her poems. Her cooking is up for comment, also.

I won’t go into the quibbles about the spelling. Suffice it to say that I am convinced that ‘cocoanut’ is merely an alternative spelling for coconut, since the cake contains coconut, and historical records exist showing that the poetess/cook did purchase coconuts at the local grocery store in Amherst. So if you were hoping for chocolate–get over it.

The main controversy had to do with the adaptation of the recipe –at an NPR web site–into a modern version that is “an everything-free version of the cake (no gluten, dairy or fast sugar)”, using a bunch of ingredients not dreamed of in Emily’s small world. Okay, adapt. But PLEASE don’t keep calling it Emily’s cake!

And anyhow, the recipe used as a basis for the PBS blog experiment was Mrs. Carmichael’s cake, not Emily’s. It came in a letter from Emily’s friend, and was attributed as “Mrs. Carmichael’s”.


The other extant version of a coconut cake recipe in Emily’s handwriting is apparently Emily’s own– perhaps evolved from experiments with Mrs. Carmichael’s recipe– so this is the one I  tried.

Emily Dickinson Coconut Cake Recipe

Emily Dickinson Coconut Cake Recipe

I checked a few modern coconut cake versions and a 1976 edition of Joy of Cooking has a recipe for twice the amount  that lines up very closely to Emily’s cake, except that the “Joy” recipe has much less coconut and also less flour

An article at The History Kitchen points out that when Emily wrote “half the rule,” she meant half a cake and concludes that since Emily gifted people with cakes, a loaf cake would be the easiest to make and take. I’m beginning to doubt that assumption as I indicate below. The other thing The History Kitchen elucidates is that the combination of soda and cream of tartar makes modern day baking powder, simplifying the “receipt” by one ingredient.

My Only Slightly Altered Version

With the help of the instructions from The History Kitchen, I blended the two recipes, using 1 1/2 cups coconut. The batter seemed much too stiff (maybe because of the extra coconut, but I like the taste), and I upped the milk to 3/4 cup. I am also tempting to use canned coconut milk in place of dairy milk, but that wouldn’t be Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake, that would be mine.

It resulted in a delicious loaf of cake. Except that it did not bake evenly–too dry on the ends and too moist–almost gooey in the middle, when made as a loaf cake. This time I tried a flat pan, because I really believe that a whole cake (the rule) would be two layers, and Emily made just one layer.

Emily Dickinson's coconut cake

Emily Dickinson’s coconut cake in a nine inch pan.

The 9″ round cake came out delicious. Yes, it is a bit rounded on the top, which indicates that it should be in a slightly larger pan, but I don’t have a ten-inch pan, and a 9 x 13 would make a very think piece of cake. Last time I frosted it and sprinkled it with coconut, but this time I’m leaving it plain. (A side of ice cream wouldn’t hurt.)

Dying is a wild night and a new road. Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake


  • 1 1/2 cup coconut (flaked)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cups milk (or use coconut milk)
  • 4 eggs (separated)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar


1. Cream butter and sugar, beating five minutes.
2. In separate bowl whisk together flour, soda and cream of tartar.
3. Add eggs yolks to flour and sugar.
4. Beat milk and coconut into batter, alternately with dry ingredients.

5. Beat egg whites until frothy and fold into batter.
6. Pour into greased loaf pan, or 9" cake pan. Bake shallower cake for 30-35 minutes. Bake loaf for 45-55 minutes.
7. Frost if desired and sprinkle with more coconut, or sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. Or just leave well enough alone.


The recipe Emily passes on calls for for one cup of grated coconut and I increased that. Emily's recipe calls for 1/2 cup of milk, but I found that made the batter too stiff, so upped it to one-fourth cup. Emily calls for two eggs, and her friend Mrs. Carmichael put six in hers, so I split the difference. (I tell you all this so that you can go back to the original version if you wish.)

One thing I did not modernize was the leavening. You can substitute 2 teaspoons of baking powder for the soda and cream of tartar, because it really is the same thing. (Emily didn't have baking powder available).

Of course neither Mrs. Carmichael nor Emily passed on any directions on baking, so I gathered those from comparing this recipe to other coconut cake recipes. Check the cake by testing with a toothpick, because all ovens are a little different.

52 Ancestors:#20 Edward Kaser and Sons, a Sad Family Story

Edward Kaser 1871-1958

Edward “Ed” Kaser, the youngest brother of my grandfather Clifford Kaser, first popped up on my radar when I was searching for any of my father’s cousins that might be about my father’s age. Because my father was much younger than his older brother, and Clifford was younger than most of his siblings, there were few cousins in the same age bracket. That partially explains why my father claimed not to know any of his Kaser family. But there’s another reason my father may have ducked one particular cousin.

Next I saw Edward (Ed)’s name in an article about the Clark, Ohio band where my grandfather Cliff Kaser played the trombone. But most intriguing, as I looked for his children, I discovered that his son Glen was no longer living with the family in 1930, although he was still in his teens. Where he was living came as a shock.

Edward was born in December 1871 to Joseph Kaser (II) and Catharine Sampsel Kaser. Like so many of the Kasers, Edward stayed right in the area where his family had farms, near Clark, Ohio.

Edward was late to marry, still living at home with his widowed mother Catharine in 1900 when he was twenty-eight years old. That would have been the period of his life when he was playing an instrument in the Clark Community band. He must have lived a happy in his twenties. Although he was a hard working and devoted to his mother, he would have been considered an eligible bachelor, and there must have been joy in making music.

Clark Community Band Stand

Photo of Clark Band Stand. Given to newspaper by Mrs. Sanford Lowe of Clark.

The 1960s newspaper article refers to the band in 1898. Three Kaser brothers–Dave, Cliff and Ed played in the band along with Dave’s son and a nephew Austin.

Ed Kaser married his wife Anna  in 1904. In the 1920 and 1930 census records he is listed as living in Mechanic Township, Holmes County, Ohio, and then in the village of Clark, Mechanic Twp, Holmes County (Probably the same house with location described differently). Unlike most of the Kaser clan, he was not a farmer, but was a painter of houses. He and his wife Anna had three children, Carl (b. 1906), Ruth (b. 1909), and Glen (b. 1911).

In 1920, Edward was 49 years old and his wife Anna was ten years younger. Interestingly, Anna had been born in Switzerland. Although she can speak English, her native tongue is German Swiss. She immigrated when she was about three years old, in 1884, and if the census reports are accurate, was naturalized between 1920 and 1930.

In 1930, only daughter Ruth, who is now 21, remains at home. Edward’s more complete job description is now painter and house paperer.

The Coshocton newspaper reports Ruth’s name many times. She appears to be a bright and talented girl, who is a public speaker and a musician like her father.

The question arises–what has become of the sons, Carl and Glen between 1920 and 1930? Sadly, tragedy struck this family in two forms. On September 11, 1924, the Holmes County Farmer Hub contained an obituary.

Carl D. Kaser was born December 2, 1906.  He an obedient son and a believer in the  Lord Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Holy Scripture.

His health was broken in the last year of his life, and on September 3, 1924, he fell asleep in death, being 17 years, 9 months and one day old.

He leaves to mourn his departure,  father, mother, one brother and one sister and other relatives and friends.

The younger brother Glen was just thirteen when his brother died, but in the 1930 census, at the age of 19, we learn that Glen has been incarcerated in the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio.

Ironically, before I knew about any of this, I visited the once notorious Ohio State Reformatory. The imposing gray limestone Gothic architecture of buildings built in 1886 still glowers over the landscape, while inside the bars of its six stories of cells and bed frames and sinks inside rust away. It was such a cruel place that it was eventually closed, and evil still seems to hang in the corridors. In fact one of its principle attractions now is as a Haunted House. You can take a video tour here.

You may have seen the prison, as it was the site used in the film The Shawshank Redemption. Sentimental movies notwithstanding, I would not wish this prison on anyone. Even if Glen’s original misdeeds were minor, he would have come out at least a hardened criminal. But in his case, he apparently broke–or was incorrigible. I do not know how long he was at Mansfield, and if he might have been at home for a time, but he led a very troubled life.

By the time he was 28, Glen was  an “inmate” at the Massillon State Hospital--for the mentally ill.  I can’t help wonder if Glen fell into the category of “criminally insane.” Whatever happened to him, the State Hospital would have been a much more pleasant place than the Reformatory. Massillon was considered one of the most desirable and well designed of such institutions, using separate “cottages”–actually fairly good sized houses–instead of one massive building.  It certainly would have been an improvement over the cruel and harsh treatment given internees at the Ohio Reformatory in Mansfield.  In fact, the Massillon Museum’s website says,

The McKinley Hall hospital was one of the most popular and “the most beautiful institution in the world”. By 1950, the hospital housed 3,100 patients with approximately 365 full and part time workers and nurses. The expanse of the land was so beautiful that many family picnics took place on the lawn, as well as the Massillon football and baseball games.

Glen died in 1977, and according to the Social Security Records had only received his Social Security card two years before that.  He would have been 64 when he got the S.S. number. Does that mean he was not released from state custody until then?  It will take some time to ferret out all the details of why Glen was incarcerated and why he was in the hospital.  All of the records of the Massillon Hospital have been lost, and I’m not sure how much I can learn form the reformatory.[Note: See comments. Amy Johnson Crow has given me a route to getting complete information on Glen’s incarceration, which I’ll be pursuing.]  Black sheep, or unfortunate victim of mental illness?

Whichever it is, his father Edward and mother Anna must have grieved at losing two sons–one to an early death and one to a life under lock and key. Did that influence their daughter Ruth to remain unmarried?  She was still living at home [see note below] in 1957 when her mother died. Until that time, the Coshocton newspaper is full of notes about Ruth attending Methodist church functions with her mother.

Since Ruth was the same age as my father,and Ed and Clifford were close in age, and played in the Clark band together as young men, it puzzles me why my Dad apparently was totally out of touch with Ruth. I wonder if Glen’s troubles created a stigma that separated parts of the family.

Ed died in January 1958 at the age of 87.

Note:  I may have to write another post about Edward and his family.  I just found information that leads me to believe he and Ruth may have been living in the Holmes County Home at the time of his death. (We called it “the poor house” in my youth, but it also housed people who were ill or just old and could not afford private care.  Ruth would have been about 50 at the time Glenn died, but as yet I do not know when they moved there. )

 How I Am Related

  • Vera Marie Badertscher is the daughter of
  • Paul Kaser, the son of
  • Clifford Kaser, who is the brother of
  • Edward Kaser, the father of Carl, Ruth and Glen Kaser.

 Notes on Research

A detailed history with many pictures of the Massillon hospital, can be found here: http://blogs.gatehousemedia.com/artandhistory/2014/09/22/massillon-state-hospital-history-and-records/

Anna Kaser’s Obituary, Coshocton Tribune,* November 27, 1957 (Other articles in this paper in 1926, 1923, 1948 and others place Anna and Ruth at Methodist Church meetings and confirm Anna remains unmarried.)

Edward Kaser’s Obituary, Coshocton Tribune,* January 18, 1958

United States Census Reports* of 1880, Bloomfield, Coshocton, Ohio; 1900 , Clark, Coshocton, Ohio; 1920 Mechanic, Holmes, Ohio; 1930, Clark, Coshocton, Ohio.

Ohio State Reformatory preservation web site: http://www.mrps.org/

*These references were found on line at Ancestry.com.

Bird’s Nest Pudding

I am currently reading The Invention of Wings* by Sue Monk Kidd, a novel about the life of a slave and her mistress in the very early 19th century Charleston, South Carolina. In it, I came across a recipe for Bird’s Nest Pudding, a dessert which I missed when I was giving you a compendium of the early American desserts made with fruits.


I don’t recall ever hearing of Bird’s Nest Pudding, but when I went searching on line for recipes, I found that it figured in the Laura Ingalls Wilder Book Farmer Boy, so I surely must have read about it long ago. (A recipe for this apple dessert is also included in the Little House Cookbook.)

Who could resist trying a recipe with such an intriguing name?

Apples stuffed with brown sugar

Apples stuffed with brown sugar

An early cookbook version of the recipe in The American Frugal Housewife by Mrs. Child published in Boston, 1833, starts with the lovely phrase, “Take eight or ten pleasant apples.”

So, here you go–a dessert to make with your pleasant apples.



Bird’s Nest (Baked Apple) Pudding


  • 6 apples
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon maple flavoring (or 1 Tablespoon maple syrup) (optional)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt


1. Peel and core apples, and place in greased 2-quart baking dish.
2. Mix nutmeg with brown sugar and stuff apples, pushing sugar down. Put baking dish of stuffed apples in 350 degree oven to begin baking while you make the batter.
3. Separate eggs. Beat eggwhites until stiff.
4. Beat yolks until they are light yellow. Stir in milk and flavoring.
5. In separate bowl, combine dry ingredients, including any left over brown sugar.
6. Pour flour mixture into egg yolks and stir until most lumps are dissolved.
7. Fold in egg whites. (May need to beat slightly before adding to batter if they have settled.)
8. Bird's nest pudding batter on apples
Remove apples from oven and pour batter over and around the apples.
9. Bake in 350 degree oven for 45-60 minutes, until crust has browned. It will puff up and look nicest when you first take it out of the oven, so serve as soon as possible.
10. Bird's Nest Pudding
Serve an apple with its crust in a dessert dish. Pour over heated cream or top with whipped cream or vanilla or maple ice cream.


Although the recipe calls for six baked apples, I had very small apples on hand, so the picture shows a pudding made with nine baked apples.

Some recipes call for a special heated cream sauce made with one pint of heavy cream, 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar and a bit of ground nutmeg.


*I will be including a review of The Invention of Wings in a future newsletter as part of the bonus material written just for readers of the newsletter. If you want to get these little extras, along with reminders once a week of what’s going on at Ancestors in Aprons, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter.

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