Emily Dickinson's recipe for cocoanut cake

Hidden Talents: A Recipe from Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was more than a sharp wordsmith; she also knew her way around the kitchen.  To her circle in Amherst, Massachusetts, this was actually a not-so-hidden talent.  Family manuscripts tell us she was generous with the fruits of her labors, sending goodies to her friends and family.  In 1853 she wrote a letter to her older brother Austin, cheerfully informing him that “I have got a nice cake of Sugar, to send to you by Mr Green, and shall put in some big, sound Apples, if there is any room.” And we know from her recipes – written on scraps or the backs of her poems – that as usual, economy mattered to Emily.

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake 
Emily Dickinson recipe
© President and Fellows of Harvard College

1 cup cocoanut

2 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup milk

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoonful soda

1 teaspoonful cream of tartar this makes one half the rule–

Dickinson enthusiasts in Amherst love to reproduce this cocoanut cake (and don’t even get them started on her gingerbread), which is also served every so often at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Want to try your hand at Emily’s Cocoanut Cake recipe?  These ingredients will make half of a cake recipe (“rule”), so use a bread loaf pan instead of a cake pan.

If you’re not a stickler on authenticity, you might make a lighter, softer loaf by decreasing the flour by 1/4th of a cup.  Other 21st century adaptations could include adding your own frosting or sweetened coconut flakes.

A baker of Emily Dickinson’s skill may not need a step-by-step recipe to follow.  For the rest of us, modern-day instructions can be found here and here.

How did it turn out?  Add your own adaptation in the comments below.


-Jill Dwiggins


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