Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

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 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


  • 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.

Christmas Baking: Emily Dickinson Black Cake

In December at Ancestors in Aprons we will talk about cookies, cookies, cookies. But first, a cake. A cake that is poetry on a plate.

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

What is Christmas without poetry? ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas; silly stuff like The Grinch; the lovely poetry of the Christmas carols; and even the poetry of popular songs like White Christmas.  

My mother and father both loved poetry. He (Paul Kaser) claimed that mother taught him to appreciate poetry, but we know that his mother liked to read and he learned to love words at her knee. Back when he was in school in the 20s, children were taught by memorization, and even in his later years, he could happily recite whole long poems.

Mother did influence a lot of people to read. I know that former students of my mother’s (Harriette Anderson Kaser) wrote to her even when she was in her 90s thanking her for teaching them to love poetry.

So, while Emily Dickinson may not pop to mind as a Christmas poet, and I can’t claim her as an ancestor–she was a very accomplished baker as well as poet, so it is appropriate for many reasons that we now have a family tradition of Emily Dickinson Black Cake for Christmas.

In another life, when I was acting in local theater, I played Emily in the play The Belle of Amherst: A One-Woman Play,and ever since, I have been making the Emily Dickinson black cake she talks about at the beginning of that play. I make it on Thanksgiving weekend, wrap it in cheesecloth dipped in brandy and serve it on Christmas Eve.

If you are intimidated by the volume of ingredients, cut the recipe in half or one-quarter if you must, but whatever you do, DO NOT call it a fruitcake.)

Emily Dickinson Black Cake

Emily Dickinson Black Cake. Can you smell the aroma?


as adapted by Vera Marie Badertscher

  • 2 Pounds flour (8 cups)
  • 2 pounds sugar (4 cups)
  • 2 pounds butter (4 cups)
  • 19 eggs
  • 5 pounds raisins
  • 1 1/2 pounds citron
  • 1 1/2 pounds currants [Be sure and get currants–they do taste different]
  • 1/2 pint brandy* (1 cup)
  • 1/2 pint molasses (1 cup)
  • 2 nutmegs (4-6 tablespoons, ground)
  • 5 tablespoons total: cloves, mace, cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon salt

* Emily says, “Not my father’s BEST brandy.”

Sift flour, soda, spices, salt.  Beat butter and sugar, add eggs a few at a time, beating after each addition.  Add brandy alternately with flour mixture.  Add molasses.  Sprinkle in fruit, slowly as you stir.
Bake at 250 degrees one and a half to three hours depending on the size of the pans you use. Full recipe makes one large “angel food cake” pan; plus 2-3 loaf pans.

Remove from pan to cool.  Wrap in cheesecloth dipped in brandy.  Store in air tight container for several weeks, dribbling on some more brandy from time to time.
Note: I have looked at other recipes on the Internet and immodestly believe this version is best. Slow baking and thorough basting are key.

A Little Black Cake History

You can read a bit of history of dried fruits at the Sun Maid website, and see how long our ancestors have been cooking with raisins and what they made with them. Here’s a particularly relevant passage:

1683 – Merry fruitcake! Austrians encounter the bounty of Middle Eastern fruit when the Turks overrun Vienna. To celebrate their survival, the Viennese serve German turban cake, or “gugelhupf,” with a filling of raisins, lemon and orange peel, almonds, and spices, on Christmas morning.

It stands to reason that before American people could buy fruits grown in Central or South American to stretch the season all year round, they depended upon preserved and dried fruits during the winter.  Hence the raisin pie popular among Ken’s Mennonite relatives. And later  I’ll be sharing a raisin bar cookie recipe from Aunt Rhema.

Interestingly, Emily’s cake most closely resembles Jamaican Black Cake.  You can find several versions of recipes on line, but I first ran across it in a little cookbook that I have since misplaced, and seeing how similar the recipe was, I thought, “Aha! the Dickinson’s, being New Englanders where there was ample trade with the Caribbean, no doubt at some time had a cook who came from Jamaica.”  I’ve never been able to track down that supposition.

There is one major difference. The Jamaican cake is frosted. Which sounds very much like overkill to me. You can also buy commercially baked Jamaican black cakes on line. But I’ll stick with the Emily Dickinson black cake version.

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