Maya Angelou’s Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting

Maya Angelou

To be honest, a few weeks ago I wrote about Emily Dickinson for World Poetry Day. However, before I decided on Dickinson, I went back and forth about whether I should write about another famed female poet who loved cooking: Maya Angelou. When I realized that Angelou’s birthday was approaching, on April 4, and that April is National Poetry Month, I decided I would honor her today, instead.

She is probably remembered best by most as a poet, but Angelou lived a full and almost unbelievable life before she ever wrote a poem.

She was born in 1928, in St. Louis, as Marguerite Annie Johnson. At the age of four, she was sent along with her brother to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with her paternal grandmother, after her parents’ marriage fell apart. Her grandmother was a powerful influence on her life. Her grandmother owned her own general store, and provided Angelou with the stability she lacked when living with her mother.

After being sent back to live with her mother, she was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. The man was later killed by family members, and Angelou became a mute for seven years, thinking she had caused his death by speaking his name. She lived with her grandmother again for the next several years. A friend of her grandmother’s, Bertha Flowers, was credited with exposing Angelou to great writers during this time, and eventually helping her overcome her muteness.

By the time she was fourteen, she and her brother were living with their mother again, this time in California. Before leaving high school, she had given birth to her first and only child, a son named Clyde. As a young woman, she supported herself with a series of jobs: She became a chef in a Creole restaurant, she was a prostitute and brothel madam for a time, she worked as the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, and as a singer in a night club. She and dancer Alvin Ailey even formed a dance duo for a time. At this point, Angelou was still going by her birth name of Marguerite, or sometimes Rita, but it was during this period that her managers at the Purple Onion, a famous club in San Francisco, where she had been performing a calypso show, suggested changing it to Maya Angelou, a combination of her nickname, and a version of her former husband’s surname.

Five years later, Angelou moved to New York to be a writer, on the suggestion of novelist John Oliver Killens. In 1960, she helped organize Cabaret for Freedom, a fundraiser to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and hearing him speak. Her passion for the Civil Rights movement grew out of this meeting.

In the early 1960’s, she spent time in Egypt and Ghana, working as an associate editor and writer for local English-language publications. She and her son had moved there after meeting and beginning a relationship with Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist. After her relationship with Make ended, Angelou was still living in Ghana and it was at that time that she met Malcolm X. They became friends and in 1965, she returned to the United States to help him create a new civil rights organization, but he was assassinated shortly after.

By the end of the 60’s, she was writing and singing to support herself and in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. asked if she would organize a march. This march would never happen, as King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th of that year (Angelou’s 40th birthday). Angelou was brokenhearted, but her pain led to the creation of undoubtedly her most famous work: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969.

The early 70’s proved to be a pivotal time for Angelou as a writer. She wrote music, scripts, and poetry. She dabbled in acting, she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Look Away on Broadway, and made an appearance in the miniseries Roots.

In the 80’s, she became a professor at Wake Forest College, teaching courses until 2011. In 1993, she read her poem On the Pulse of Morning at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She lectured extensively throughout the 90’s, and by the end of her life, she had written 7 autobiographies. According to her son, she was working on another at the time of her death in 2014, at the age of 86.

In honor of Angelou’s 90th birthday, I made her grandmother’s recipe for caramel cake. She wrote about this cake in her book, Hallelujah!, saying that it was a favorite of hers and one of her grandmother’s specialties. It was a favorite at the quilting bees hosted in the back of her grandmother’s store, and Angelou recounts a day when she was punished by a teacher for her voluntary muteness; after visiting the school to punish the teacher in turn, her grandmother made Maya her very own caramel cake to remind her of her love.

Maya Angelou Caramel Cake

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Caramel Cake with Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8. Recipe from Maya Angelou’s book Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes.

Ingredients:
Caramel sauce:
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
Cake:
1 stick of butter, unsalted and very soft
1 cup of sugar
1/4 cup caramel sauce (recipe below)
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup milk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
Frosting:
9 tbsp butter, unsalted
12 oz confectioner’s sugar
6 tbsp heavy cream
2 1/4 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt

Instructions:

Caramel sauce: Heat the sugar over a heavy-bottomed skillet until it begins to melt and bubble, stirring occasionally. Once it is brown and bubbly on the surface, remove from heat and slowly add the water. Be careful, because it will bubble and spit as mix in the water. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.

Place two 8-inch rounds of parchment paper in the bottom of two 8-inch cake pans. Brush thoroughly with vegetable oil, or spray with cooking spray.

Cake: Beat the softened butter until smooth, add in the sugar in three batches, fully beating it into the butter each time. Then add the caramel sauce and beat until combined.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Add the flour mixture and 1 cup of milk to the butter-sugar mixture in 3 batches, alternating between the two, and stirring until just combined between each addition.

And in another medium bowl, beat together the eggs until they’re frothy, between 2-3 minutes. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar and beat until mixture is foamy and the sugar is dissolved.

Fold the egg mixture into the batter until just combined. Divide evenly between the two cake pans and bake for about 25 minutes. Begin checking for doneness around the 22 minute mark. The center of cake should spring back when pressed with a finger and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean. Allow to cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove the parchment and place on wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

Frosting: (I made 1.5x the original recipe for this frosting.) Brown butter in a pan over medium heat. You will know when it’s done when it stops hissing and smells nutty. Be careful not to burn it. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Place confectioner’s sugar, cream, vanilla, salt, and cooled butter into a bowl. Beat until the mixture is smooth and the sugar is fully incorporated.

Frost the cake as desired and eat immediately, or refrigerate until ready to eat.

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My thoughts on the cake are as follows: super simple to make, surprisingly moist, unsurprisingly delicious.

I will say, these posts always seem to pack a lot into a tiny space, but perhaps never more so than with this post–no one has had quite as full a life as Maya Angelou–so I hope I did her some justice. It’s been a real pleasure researching the woman behind the words.

Happy 90th birthday, Maya Angelou!

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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!