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 ORIGINAL

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 ToriAvey.com (Formerly 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 Tori Avey, 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 thin 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

Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

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.

Note

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 three-fourths 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.

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