Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake

Emily Dickinson

It’s SPRING! Finally! I mean, it won’t feel like spring here until about two months from now, but technically, it arrived yesterday. Spring also means that I’m finally going to be able to say goodbye to my TV-friend for a while, leaving behind my winter life as a couch potato to actually go outside.

Aside from TV watching, being home-bound in the cold often leads to a lot of researching and baking. Usually in that order. On one particularly cold day, I discovered that in 1999, UNESCO declared March 21st to be National Poetry Day. I started looking into poets I could honor here, and that led me to the beloved and mysterious poet, Emily Dickinson.

Born in 1830, Dickinson spent almost her entire life in Amherst, Massachusetts, near her family. Well educated for a woman of her time, she spent seven years attending school at Amherst Academy, which she only left after falling ill on more than one occasion.

After her time in school, little is known about Dickinson, beyond what is expressed in her letters and poetry. We remember her now as a reclusive, fragile woman dressed in white, perhaps as much as we remember her writing.

It is said that, as a young woman, she was social and had many friends, but that as she aged, she became less and less likely to accept visitors into her home, preferring instead to speak to them through closed doors. There have been many guesses as to why Dickinson began living as a recluse. Some historians think she may have suffered from epilepsy, a disease that, at the time, would have rendered her a social pariah. Others think she had what we would today call agoraphobia.

Dickinson never married and, instead, spent her time with her brother Austin’s family, and a sister, Lavinia, who also never married. And, while Dickinson became withdrawn from society, she never stopped writing. Through the years, she became extremely close to her brother’s wife, Susan, and though they lived on estates next door to one another, they wrote to each other often.

After Dickinson’s death, her sister, Lavinia, found some of her poems (she wrote almost 1800 during her life) and decided they should be published. It was Mabel Todd, wife of an astronomer, and mistress to Emily’s brother, Austin, who became the editor of Dickinson’s works. Todd had never actually met the poet face to face, though Dickinson was aware of her existence, and even sent her poetry from time to time.

My favorite story of the poet is one Todd told of when she and Dickinson almost met. Dickinson’s brother had invited Todd to the house where his sisters and mother lived to play the piano and sing for them. Austin’s mother was upstairs and invalid, and therefore couldn’t greet Ms. Todd. Emily was there too, and while she listened from the hallway, she chose not to leave the shadows. Instead, she sent a poem out to Todd on a scrap of paper. Todd’s later response to their “meeting” was: “It was odd to think as my voice rang out through the big silent house that Miss Emily in her weird white dress was outside in the shadow hearing every word.”

While Todd considered Dickinson’s work “genius”, she heavily edited her writings before they were published. Todd’s versions of the works did become very successful. By contrast, Emily’s sister-in-law Susan attempted to publish a few of her letters and was met with much less interest. It was also Todd who created the idea of Dickinson as a strange woman in white. It’s difficult now to distinguish the woman from the myth, though in her letters Dickinson is lively and witty. And, in addition to being an excellent poet, Dickinson was a fan of both gardening and baking, perhaps being known more for these during her life, than for her writing. In the years she spent closed off visually from society, she would still make baked goods and lower them down to children in the street in a basket.

In fact, more than one recipe, written in Dickinson’s own hand, still exists today. I tried her recipe for a coconut cake, which comes down to us with a few simple ingredients, and no instructions on preparation. I just did it the way I would if I were making any other cake. It could be prepared in a loaf pan, but I opted to use the vintage bundt pan that my mother gave me recently. It worked well!

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Coconut Cake
Makes one small bundt cake, or a one 8″ x 4″ loaf. Recipe slightly altered from original recipe from Emily Dickinson.

1 cup coconut, shredded and unsweetened
8 ounces hot water
2 cups flour
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 eggs, large


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Oil and flour a bundt pan, or a small loaf pan.

Add shredded coconut to a bowl and pour 8 ounces of hot water over the top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Drain the water off and spread the coconut out on paper towels to dry slightly.

In a separate small bowl, combine the flour, cream of tartar, and baking soda. Stir to combine.

In a large bowl, mix the sugar and softened butter with a hand mixer until creamed, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs and stir together until just combined.

Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture and stir until just combined.

Finally, add the coconut and stir until just combined.

Pour the mixture into the oiled and floured pan.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, beginning to test the cake with a toothpick at 30 minutes. Once a toothpick inserted into multiple places around the cake comes out clean, it’s done.

Allow cake to cool for about 5 minutes in the pan, then remove from the pan and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

Eat as is, or add glaze and toasted coconut.

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Baker’s note: This cake is a tad on the drier side. Cakes during that time period were made to be pretty sturdy, and therefore were not light and fluffy the way we expect cakes to be today. (This might more accurately be described as a sweet coconut bread.)

I had a great time researching Emily Dickinson’s story. And I feel like I could write a book now, but this is only a blog, so I hope you do some follow-up research yourself; she is a fascinating woman! Happy World Poetry Day!


Semlor (Swedish Cardamom Cream Buns)


Happy Mardi Gras!

If we were still living in New Orleans, this day would have looked much different. I still can’t believe that Chicago hasn’t discovered Mardi Gras: 1) a huge party, 2) costumes, 3) parades, 4) drinking! We like all of those things! I mean, I guess the parade part is the biggest hindrance. We got a foot of snow here in Chicago last week. Most of the cars on my street are still buried. No parades or floats here. And I almost miss getting hit in the head with beads–almost. Because I would always, always, once a year, get hit in the head with beads. For me, it was a Mardi Gras tradition.

Anyway, the snow has kept us indoors for the most part and it has us both going stir-crazy. But the good part of being snowed in is the baking! I never feel like baking more than when it’s cold and snowy outside. And, since it’s Mardi Gras, I thought I would celebrate with the baked goods of the season!

Last year, I made King Cake Paczkis, with moderate success. This year, I took my inspiration from the Swedes and made semlor: Cardamom-scented buns, filled with sweetened almond paste and whipped cream.

Semlor are eaten in Sweden (and throughout Scandinavia) to celebrate Shrove Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras), known to the Swedes as Fettisdagen, or “fat day”, the last day before Lent. Like king cake and paczskis, the dish was originally created as a way to use up fats and sugar in the house, before the fasting that accompanies Lent. However, you can now find the buns on bakery shelves from January through Easter. It’s estimated that 20 million semlor (the plural of semla) are eaten in Sweden every year. Semlor are sometimes eaten in a bowl of hot milk, which is known as “hetvägg” or “hot wall.” And, though this might be rumor, it is even said that the Swedish king, Adolph Frederick, died in 1771 of digestion problems after eating, in addition to many other things, 14 semlor!

I tried to make these semlor several times. I used a few different recipes from around the internet. My friend Rasmus said that the most important part was that each semla should be light and airy, rather than bread-like and hard. And my first two tries did come out more like bread. Then I thought of the lightest and airiest rolls that I ever made: A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls! Even though these rolls aren’t meant to be dessert, I used the base of that recipe to create the bun for the semlor. The result was super soft semlor buns, obviously a little sweeter and spiced with cardamom, ready to be filled with almond paste and cream! Semlor




Makes 8-10 buns.

For buns:
5 tbsp sugar
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 cup whole milk, warmed to 115-120 degrees
1 egg yolk, beaten
4 tbsp unsalted butter, softened, plus another 1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 1/2 cups, all-purpose flour, plus another 1/2 cup for kneading
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp-1 tbsp vegetable oil for oiling the bowl
For filling:
3/4 cup almond paste, sweetened
1/3 cup whole milk
2 cups heavy cream

Confectioner’s sugar, optional, for sprinkling over the top


In a large bowl, stir together the sugar, yeast, and warm milk. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes to activate.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1 cup of flour, the salt, and the cardamom.

Stir the beaten egg and melted butter into the yeast mixture. Add the flour mixture and stir until completely combined, then add an additional cup of flour and stir until combined, then add one half a cup of flour and stir.

Lightly flour a surface and scrape the dough out onto the flour. Knead the remaining half cup of flour into the dough, for about 5 minutes.

Oil a large bowl with vegetable oil and add the dough, turning over in the oil to coat.

Cover with dishtowel and place in a warm area for an hour and a half, until double in size.

Divide the dough into 8-10 balls and place at least 1-inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another 30 to 60 minutes. The dough should double in size again.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Brush the top of the buns with a little cream, or a beaten egg, before baking for 15-20 minutes, until slightly golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool.

As the buns are cooling, whip the remaining whipping cream with 1 tsp vanilla extract.

Mix 3/4 cup of almond paste with 1/4 cup whole milk.

Cut a tiny cone shape in the top of each bun. Fill the space with about 2 tbsp of the almond mixture, then top with whipped cream. Place the lid of the bun back on top of the whipped cream and dust with powdered sugar.


With their little powdered sugar party hats, they look a lot like every single round, snow-covered surface in Chicago right now, and they were a big hit in this house. I don’t know where to acquire a semla in the city of Chicago. There is stiff competition with paczkis and king cake here. I assume the old Swedish Bakery used to make them, but, alas, the Swedish Bakery is no more. If you find them, please let me know!

Parker House Rolls

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Yesterday was the first day of winter, the longest day of the year. But I’m so ready, because that means today it will start getting a little lighter a little earlier, and 4:30pm will start to feel less like midnight. I am unexpectedly back in Indiana this week, because my poor mama fell and broke her wrist! And even though I didn’t plan on coming home for Christmas, it’s nice to be home around the holidays, even if it’s for an unfortunate reason. AND! With Christmas approaching, I’m obviously thinking a lot about food. For some people, the holiday means presents. For me, it means food.

Awhile back, Alex sent me an article that says the favorite Thanksgiving side dish of the Midwest is rolls and biscuits. Biscuits, maybe, but rolls?! Is this who we are? Judging from the amount of carbs I consumed as a child, it must be. I mean, I love bread. As a kid, I would ask my mom for a loaf of Italian bread from the store to eat in front of the TV: A LOAF of bread. Rolls, though? Idk. We always had crescent rolls at holiday dinners when I was growing up. They’re…OK. I remember biting into one once when I was little, thinking it would be buttery like a croissant. I was mistaken. So, anyway, long story short, I’m leery of rolls. I’ve been burned before.

I also realized that the only non-sweet rolls I’ve ever made were A Cozy Kitchen’s Everything Cloverleaf Rolls for a Friendsgiving a few years back. We couldn’t stop eating them. This year, though, I wanted to try a much older recipe. This holiday season, I offer you a recipe for very traditional Parker House rolls.

Parker House rolls were created in the 1880’s at the Parker House Hotel in Boston. The original hotel no longer exists, but it is located where the Omni Parker House sits now. The Parker House was famous in its own right, hosting both the famous and the infamous: In the 1860’s, Charles Dickens lived at the Parker House, and recited A Christmas Carol (how timely!) there, for the first time in Boston, 150 years ago in 1867. Two years earlier, John Wilkes Booth stayed in the hotel eight days before he assassinated President Lincoln, while visiting his brother, an actor who was performing in a play in Boston. And, Parker House rolls are not the only enduring recipe to come out of the Hotel’s kitchen. The Parker House is also said to be where the Boston Cream Pie, the official state dessert of Massachusetts, was created.

A traditional Parker House roll is unique because of its fold. Usually oval in shape and then folded over, most origin stories credit the fold to when an angry baker threw the unfinished rolls into the oven. The rolls became a staple on tables all over the country after the recipe was featured in Fannie Farmer’s 1896 cookbook, the first cookbook to include standardized measurement.

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Parker House Rolls
Makes about 2 dozen rolls. This recipe is a variation of Yossy Arefi’s recipe on Food52.

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, very soft
1 envelope (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup warm water (about 120 degrees)
1 1/2 cups milk
1 egg
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (for greasing pan and brushing on top of the rolls)
Flaky sea salt, to taste


In a large bowl, combine 3 cups of the flour, salt, and softened butter. Beat with a hand mixer or wooden spoon until it just begins to come together.

In a smaller bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and warm water. Whisk briefly and allow to sit for about five minutes.

In a two-cup measuring cup, or small bowl, beat together the milk and egg.

To the flour mixture, add the milk and egg mixture and then the yeast mixture. Then, add 1/2 cup of flour to the mixture, incorporating the flour fully into the mixture, and repeat this 1/2 cup at a time until you reach 4 1/2 cups of flour total. Transfer the dough to a large, greased bowl. (The dough will be quite sticky!) Cover with plastic wrap and a dish towel, and allow to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.

Once it has risen, remove and uncover the dough and punch it down. Then divide the dough into four equal pieces.

On a well-floured surface, take 1/4 of the dough and roll out into a 18′ X 5″ rectangle. Take a butter knife and make a line lengthwise down the dough, not cutting all the way through. Fold the dough over on top of itself, at the crease. Make five cuts, creating six 3-inch rolls from the dough. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and brush it inside two large rectangular pans, or cast iron skillets. Lay each individual roll into the dish. Continue with the other three sections of dough. Cover and allow to rise another 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoon of butter, brush the top of the rolls with melted butter, and bake for about 30 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.

Remove from oven, brush with more melted butter, sprinkle with sea salt, and serve warm.

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Consider this a solid for my Midwestern folks out there who love their rolls. And—you’re going to either hate or love me for pointing this out—these rolls are perfectly crafted to help you mop every bit of butter from your butter knife. (Butter mopping is an important thing to consider here in the Midwest.) Super soft, slightly sweet, and very light, with a slightly crisp exterior, Parker House rolls are a great addition to your holiday table. Or… like… any morning, smeared with butter and jam or honey. Plus, if you bring homemade rolls to any dinner, you look like a champion. You get bonus points if they’re still warm when you sit down to eat.

So, this is probably my last post of the year, unless I get to baking again and feel like there’s something I really need to share. If you don’t hear from me until next year, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to you all! I wish you lots of cookie eating and mulled wine drinking for the rest of the year. Catch you in 2018!