Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake

I was going to post today about a sensible oat bran muffin, something to lob into lunch bags, and to fulfill our fiber quotient. Then my niece Anne sent me a link to an article about the poet Emily Dickinson, and how much she enjoyed baking, and that she was known for, among other things, her coconut cake. The oat bran muffins vanished from my mind (thank goodness), and in a twinkling I was at the store buying coconut, milk, and a new sack of flour.

From Emily Dickinson’s kitchen. Image is from the Emily Dickinson Museum (emilydickinsonmuseum.org)

The recipe listed ingredients only, and there was no method, no pan size, or baking temperature. Why should that stop me? I thought. So here is what I came up with. One major difference between her cake and mine (other than that her cake was baked by a genius), was that she used a real coconut and had to crack it and grate it, and perhaps used the milk, as well. We know that because the account books of Cutler’s General Store in Amherst show the Dickinson family purchasing fresh coconuts. Realizing that most of us aren’t going to do that, I stuck with Baker’s sweetened coconut. Also, they were known to have kept chickens, so she had really fresh eggs. The nature of the flour she used I can only guess at. I used all-purpose flour, and will make this again with cake flour.

So here is my interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake

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

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9″ round cake pan with shortening. Using the pan as a pattern, cut out a circle of waxed paper. Pat it into the pan, and grease again.

Thoroughly mix the softened butter with the sugar. Add the first egg, and beat with 50 strokes. Add the second egg, and beat 200 more strokes. (Before the advent of electric mixers, cakes were beaten thoroughly by hand. This is how long I had to beat it to get the eggs beaten well.)

Cake upended on cake plate.

Sift together the flour, baking soda and cream of tartar. (I also put in a pinch of salt, though the recipe didn’t indicate it.) Starting with the flour, add the flour alternately with the milk, ending with the flour, and only mixing until the flour is just incorporated. Then mix in the coconut. Scrape into the pan and smooth the top. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes.  Allow to cool down in the pan for about 15 minutes; loosen around the edges with a dinner knife, and then unmold onto a cake plate. I used a footed cake plate, because it seems like this cake would be served for special occasions.

I mulled over the frosting. Perhaps she had used a seven-minute sort of frosting, but I decided to use an easy vanilla buttercream frosting from Betty Crocker. Mix 1/3 cup softened unsalted butter, 3 cups powdered sugar, 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla, and about 3-1/2 tablespoons milk. Beat until smooth, and frost cake recipe. I sprinkled the cake with what was left of the coconut in the 7-ounce bag I had purchased.

Then came the moment. What would it taste like? I cut a lady-like slab and ate a forkful. It was buttery, coarse textured (from the coconut), and quite delicious. If you can fall in love with a cake, I have fallen in love with this one–because of where it came from, and for its coconuttiness.

And here is the poem she wrote, on the back of the directions she received for “Cocoa Nut Cake” in a letter from a friend.

The Things that never can come back, are several–
Childhood — some forms of Hope –the Dead —
Though Joys –like Men — may sometimes make a Journey —
And still abide —
We do not mourn for Traveler, or Sailor,
Their Routes are fair —
But think enlarged of all that they will tell us
Returning here —
“Here!” There are typic “Heres” —
Foretold Locations —
The Spirit does not stand —
Himself — at whatsoever Fathom
His Native Land —

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