Monday, May 25, 2015

Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake, or We're going literary now

We at A Book of Cookrye are pleased today to once again dig out forgotten recipes of yore! ...Well, actually, this one isn't completely forgotten seeing as we got it off of an NPR article, but there you go. At any rate, we needed something delicious enough to make studying for finals bearable. We've already done Emily Dickinson's neighbor's coconut cake, why not do the one from Dickinson herself?
Because I could not stop for cake
It kindly stopped for me-
The kitchen held but just ourselves
And many a Calorie

Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake
1 c shredded coconut
2 c flour
1 c sugar
½ c butter
½ c milk
2 eggs
½ tsp baking soda*
1 tsp cream of tartar

Heat oven to 330°. Grease a layer cake pan.
Cream sugar and flour. Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing in the first thoroughly before adding the second. Stir in the soda and cream of tartar. Mix in the milk, then add the flour. Lastly, stir in the coconut.
Spread the batter into the pan. Bake until golden on top and a knife in the center comes out with no liquid batter, about 20-30 minutes.

*You can use 1½ tsp baking powder instead of the soda and cream of tartar.

Note 1: Emily Dickinson's note at the bottom says this is half of a full-sized cake.
Note 2:This is really good with ⅛ tsp rose water (fairly cheap at middle-Eastern stores) added (hey, it's period-correct). However, if it's hard to find rose water or you can only get it at some overpriced specialty store, just leave it out. The cake is delicious anyway.

I'm having a hard time believing the person who wrote the article is, as claimed, a Dickinson scholar. How could someone who's going that deep into debt to study Emily Dickinson not find out early in her studies that she liked to bake and was locally famous for it? The Emily Dickinson Museum has a whole page dedicated to how much she liked cooking. Even the bottom-of-the-page biography blurb in my high school English book said that at her most reclusive, she was still known for lowering baskets of baked goods on a rope out the window to children below.
Heck yes.

Emily Dickinson didn't write the instructions, but that's fairly common for recipes that are notes to self. Or, if you're writing them out for friends, you tend to leave out any steps that you figure they'll already surmise- which often leaves you with a list of ingredients and a cooking time.
This looks like a pretty normal modern-day cake recipe aside from stirring coconut into it. Based on the ingredients list, Emily Dickinson did not subscribe to the Mrs. Goodfellow baking-powder-is-evil style of cooking.
I hope I wasn't supposed to separately beat the eggs.

Emily Dickinson must have really liked coconut cake because two different recipes for it survive among her papers. They look like they'd come out really different. She attributed the other one to someone named Mrs. Carmichael, who people describe as either a family friend, a neighbor, or just someone who also lived in Amherst. This one just has the note that it makes half of the full recipe. I don't know why she divided the recipe in half before writing it down, but it looks like it'll make a nice little cake.

I always get a little unnerved seeing the butter in little curds- I once threw an entire batch of half-mixed cookie dough out because it looked like this and I was certain that either the recipe was faulty or I'd ruined it.
At any rate, we had some tasty, tasty cake batter. It's a lot thicker than cake batter usually ends up being, though.
I know I'm not the only one who wants to turn off the oven and get out a bigger spoon.

Now, the recipe says to use baking soda and cream of tartar, a combination that still shows up in substitution lists in the backs of cookbooks for when you've run out of baking powder. We at A Book of Cookrye just so happen to have run out of baking powder, leaving us to wonder: where the hell did the cream of tartar come from?

And now, we turn this from a regular cake into a coconut cake! Surprisingly given the time period, the recipe calls for pre-grated coconut by the cup and not for a coconut which you then shred for yourself. Incidentally, while you'll find plenty of coconut cake recipes around today, a lot of them are a regular cake with lots of coconut in the icing or between the layers. It seems the idea of putting coconut into the cake itself has gone out of style.

Look at how thick this is!
This is gonna be so good...

Here, I must confess that due to aforementioned finals studying, I kind of forgot to check whether the cake was done.
Nothing wrong with a well-done cake.

However, and here's how you know this recipe is worth holding onto, it still was fricken perfect! How many cakes come out just fine when you nearly burn them? Now, this article said that Emily Dickinson and her friends used to dip the cake in sherry. Guess what I still haven't used all of?
The only reason I have sherry in the first place is an experiment with a friend to see if coding goes better when slightly tippled. It didn't work.

I might have liked it if I liked sherry. But I don't. However, the cake itself is absolutely divoon. Also, and this is well worth keeping in mind when frazzled and worn out, it is surprisingly resilient to overbaking.

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