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 And, while Dickinson became withdrawn from society, she never stopped writing.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!

Coconut Cake

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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!


L.M. Montgomery & Mock Cherry Pie

Lucy_Maud_MontgomeryLike many girls, I was a big fan of the Anne of Green Gables books growing up. My grandma had the movies starring Megan Follows. And I think those old VHS tapes are still in a box at my mom’s house. However, I realized in the last few years that the author of the Anne of Green Gables books was a woman, though she often used the shortened and more gender-ambiguous L.M. Montgomery.

Canada’s favorite daughter, L.M. Montgomery preferred to go by her middle name, Maud (without an “e”), and was born and raised on Prince Edward Island. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was sent by her father to live with her grandmother. She spent much of her time by herself, and she would often describe her upbringing as lonely.

Montgomery got the idea for Anne of Green Gables when she was looking through an old newspaper and found a story of a couple who had sent a request to an orphanage for a boy, but received a girl instead. And she used a fictional version of Green Gables, an actual farm that was once owned by Montgomery’s cousins. In 1908, the book was published and was almost immediately a hit. (A story for those of you out there dealing with rejection: The first time Montgomery sent the manuscript for Anne of Green Gables out to publishers, it was rejected by all of them. She put the manuscript at the bottom of a trunk for three years before she sent it out again in 1908.)

However, Montgomery’s success did not translate to her personal life. In 1911, after her grandmother died, Montgomery married her husband Ewan McDonald, a Presbyterian Minister. The marriage was not a happy one, and they shared few interests. Even so, she and her husband had two sons, and one son who was stillborn. And, even though she had a successful writing career, as a woman of her time and of her strong religious conviction, Montgomery believed that it was her duty to be a good wife and mother. Part of this, of course, meant providing meals for her family, and Montgomery was an excellent cook. Years ago, one of her nieces even compiled a cookbook of her aunt’s recipes.

One of her younger son’s favorite recipes of his mother’s was mock cherry pie, which is composed of raisins and cranberries instead of cherries. I originally thought that “mock cherry pie” was probably one of those awesome depression-era recipes, where home cooks somehow fashioned a roast beef dinner out of an old shoe. Not so. Mock cherry pie was popular around the turn of the century, and the first mentions of the recipe seem to come from the Chicago Record Cook Book, published in 1896. Then the recipe was picked up by New Englanders and Canadians, probably because of their ready access to fresh cranberries during the colder months.

So, in honor of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born on this day 143 years ago, I’ve made a mock cherry pie. I looked through several recipes in old newspapers and all are very simple and almost exactly the same: cranberries, raisins, sugar, flour, vanilla. I used the same here, except I increased the portions slightly (most recipes call for about 1 1/2 cups of filling total. The recipe below more than doubles that and it’s still a rather small pie).

Mock Cherry Pie

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Mock Cherry Pie
Makes one 8-inch pie.

1 two-crust pie crust (I prefer this one)
2 1/2 cups cranberries
1 1/4 cups dark raisins
3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
For egg wash:
1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream
2 tsp sugar


Slightly chop the cranberries by hand or in a food processor, just enough so they are no longer whole. To a saucepan, add the cranberries, raisins, sugar, flour, lemon zest, and salt. Mix together and then bring to a boil over medium heat, for about 15 minutes total. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Prepare the bottom half of your pie shell. Fill with cranberry raisin mixture. Place in refrigerator while you prepare the top of the crust.

Prepare the top of the shell. You can make this into a traditional lattice-top, or just a solid layer over the top. Either way, be sure there are holes in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Place top crust over the mixture and crimp the edges. Place in freezer for about 15 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Beat together the egg and milk or cream. After the pie has been in the freezer for 15 minutes, brush the top crust of the pie with the mixture. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of sugar. Place on a cookie sheet and bake pie for about 25 minutes, turn 180 degrees and continue baking for another 25 minutes. If the edges of the crust begin to get too dark, cover them with foil and continue to bake.

Remove from oven and serve warm, or at room temperature.

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How about that? Very simple, and in the winter months this recipe will provide you with the sweet-sour, cherry-like flavor you’ve been craving. Would a cherry-pie-loving person be fooled? No, probably not. But the fact is, this pie is absolutely stands on its own two feet. It’s delicious. And, if you are a fan of cherry pie, I think you’d be hard pressed to find something as satisfying during the winter months.

Two quick tips: 1) The bigger the raisins, the better. They plump up and provide you with the bite you would get from a cherry, as well as the sweetness. 2) I always have trouble getting my foil to stay on my pie crusts while baking. This time I used one of those throwaway foil pie pans, but I cut the bottom out and just placed it over my crust. It worked awesome! Maybe everyone already knows this trick, but I really impressed myself.

Happy 143rd birthday, Lucy Maud Montgomery!