The recipes of Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson, according to this post from the NY Times blog, was quite the accomplished baker. Some of her cake recipes have endured and will come to life at a reception as part of an exhibit through Poets House.

From the post:

Whatever you happen to think about when you think about Emily Dickinson, it’s probably unlikely that what first leaps to mind is an image of the Belle of Amherst stuffing her face with cake.

In the public imagination, at least, this spectral titan of American poetry comes across as a figure of austerity, mystery, luminosity, seclusion. Somehow it’s hard to envision her even eating a meal, let alone taking delectable pleasure from it.

But as with many things about her, the truth is richer and more fascinating than the cliché. Emily Dickinson, it turns out, was totally into baking.

In fact, at a reception on Thursday evening in Battery Park City, New Yorkers will get to sample a slice of one of her favorite treats. Manuscripts, letters and fragments from the poet’s life are going on display at the Poets House, many for the first time, and among them is her handwritten, bare-bones recipe for coconut cake, which a local poetry collector and avid baker named Carolyn Smith is conjuring up for the event.

Here’s one of her recipes for Gingerbread Cookies:
Emily Dickinson’s Gingerbread Cookie Recipe
Makes 2 dozen large cookies
Ingredients
4 cups flour
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup molasses
Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease cookie sheet. Combine the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Shape heaping tablespoons of dough into flattened ovals about 3 inches long. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Here’s Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake Recipe

Ingredients

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

A different version of Dickinson’s recipe can be used as my starting point, which was enclosed in a letter to the poet from a Mrs. Carmichael:

1 pound sugar –

1/2 – Butter –

1/2 – Flour –

6 eggs –

1 grated Cocoa Nut –

Either, or both, could be Dickinson’s “original” recipe for coconut cake. Neither recipe included directions, just the list of ingredients.

Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake, Retouched for the 21st Century

(This recipe was adapted and modified from the original — Letter #665 in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas Johnson, and is indebted to several measurement suggestions in Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as Cook.)

2 cups Coconut Secret® coconut sap sugar
1 cup Earth Balance® butter substitute
2 cups brown rice flour (Arrowhead Mills® gluten-free “Improved Texture” mix works well)
6 eggs (separate yolks and whites)

1 ½ to 2 cups shredded, unsweetened coconut (can also use flaked coconut, coarsely chopped)
1 cup coconut milk

Rather than make a simple icing, standard fare in the 19th-century, based partly on the ingredients I had lying around, I decided to go with this topping instead. It worked very well.

1-2 cups flaked coconut, unsweetened
½ cup orange blossom honey
Zest of four limes
Juice of two limes

Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, blend butter-substitute and coconut sugar. Add brown rice flour and beaten egg yolks. Beat egg whites until slightly frothy and add to batter. Gradually add shredded coconut and coconut milk, blending all ingredients thoroughly. Spray a 9 x 13 baking dish with coconut oil. Pour batter into the greased dish (the baking dish should be half full). Bake for 25 minutes in a convection oven (probably 30-35 minutes in a regular oven). Mix the coconut-lime topping. Remove from heat, let cool for a few minutes, spread the topping evenly over the cake.

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