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 And, while Dickinson became withdrawn from society, she never stopped writing.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

Ingredients:
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

Instructions:

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!

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Toll House Inn Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Did you Super Bowl on Sunday? For once, we went a Super Bowl party. A very special one, too, because our friends Jen and Rasmus hosted, and we made Korean dumplings and gimbap while watching the game. Then we got to enjoy the labor of our work during the last two quarters for the traditional commercial-judging and nail-biting.

Sadly, this post–about the super cookie, the champion cookie, the chocolate chip cookie–would have been even more special if the Patriots had won on Sunday, because February 6 marks the 230th anniversary of Massachusetts becoming a state, and because the recipe was invented in Massachusetts. In fact, the chocolate chip cookie is the official state cookie, after being nominated by a class of hungry third graders in 1997.

The Toll House Cookie–now known simply as the chocolate chip cookie–was invented in 1930 at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. The owner of the inn, Ruth Graves Wakefield, is given credit for the creation. It’s often said that she invented the cookie by accident, having added chopped chocolate to create a chocolate cookie. Grave Wakefield disputed this later in life, claiming that she hadn’t meant to make a chocolate cookie at all, but was instead trying to change up the butterscotch nut cookie recipe that was already made at the inn. She even called it the Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie, which would imply that she planned for the chocolate chips to remain in pieces. (In fact, while Graves Wakefield was not a professional chef, she had attended the Framingham State School Department of Household Arts, and worked in the 20’s as a food lecturer and dietician. Before her chocolate chip cookie recipe took off, she was known for her lobster dinners and other dishes created around historical New England culinary traditions.)

For the first version of the recipe, Graves Wakefield simply chopped up pieces of a Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate bar. As chocolate chip cookies increased in popularity, rumor has it that she worked out an agreement with Nestlé: Her recipe could be printed on their chocolate bar, if they would provide her with all the chocolate she needed. In 1939, one year after her recipe for the Chocolate Crunch Cookie was published, Nestlé began selling their chocolate in tiny pieces, the first version of what we now know as chocolate chips. It’s likely that, with the onset of World War II, chocolate chip cookies became even more popular, with soldiers regularly requesting them in their care packages. While it’s fair to say that Ruth Graves Wakefield was probably not the first person to throw chocolate pieces into a cookie, she is responsible for making the chocolate chip cookie a household name and one of America’s favorite things. A figure from 2013 puts annual American chocolate chip cookie consumption at around 7 billion.

While the Nestlé chocolate chip packages still print the “original” chocolate chip cookie recipe on them, I found that on October 5, 1939, newspapers in three different states all published the recipe for Grave Wakefield’s Original Toll House Cookies (I couldn’t confirm that this was the exact original recipe from Graves Wakefield’s 1938 Tried and True cookbook). That recipe varies slightly from the one now found on Nestlé products. And even though this is one of the most basic recipes there is, I suspect you’re going to like it.

Toll House Cookies

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Toll House Inn Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes about 24 2 1/2-inch cookies.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp hot water
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
7 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat with hand mixer until the butter and both sugars are fully combined. Add egg and beat until combined.

Sift the flour and then measure out 1 1/2 cups. Add the salt and stir together. Set aside.

In a small cup, combine the hot water and the baking soda. Stir to combine.

Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and 1/3 of the hot water mixture to the butter-sugar mixture. Beat with a hand mixer until just incorporated. Add another 1/3 of flour and hot water, beat, and continue with the last 1/3 of each.

Beat in the vanilla with a hand mixer, and stir in the chocolate chips and nuts (optional) with a wooden spoon until evenly distributed.

Scoop 1 1/2 tablespoon dollops of dough onto the cookie sheet, 12 per sheet, spaced about 2 inches apart.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the pan 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Remove from oven, allow to cool for five minutes on the pan, then remove to a cooling rack and enjoy!

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I’ll admit it, I am such a boring cookie eater. As a child, I would painstakingly avoid both the nuts AND chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. That’s right, the only part of the cookie I was interested in was the cookie part. However, these actually might be one of the best chocolate chips cookies I’ve ever had. First, they are thin, which I love. And the best part is they are not super crisp. There is slight crispiness around the edges, and the centers stay nice and chewy. Perfect!

So, happy birthday, Massachusetts. You may not have another Super Bowl win this year, but you’ll always have chocolate chip cookies.

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.

Ingredients:
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

Instructions:

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!