Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake

This past summer, E, B, and I visited the Emily Dickinson Museum during a brief day trip to Massachusetts. Yes, I love her poetry, and yes, that's the reason most visit. But I was there for the cakes. Emily was a prolific baker, and I wanted to see where she not only wrote her famous words and breathed and lived, but where she baked as well.

The Emily Dickinson House. Photo by me, and the only one kiddo wasn't running through.

The Emily Dickinson House. Photo by me, and the only one kiddo wasn't running through.

They sell a small booklet devoted the her kitchen craft in the gift shop and I've clutched it to my chest with reverent love ever since its purchase. 

But I've only recently baked from it, just a little over a week ago in honor of Emily's 186th birthday on December 10th. Though her Black Cake was an obvious choice as tis' the season for rich fruitcakes redolent with seasonal spices, I chose to bake her coconut cake.

Image: Harvard archives and  here

Image: Harvard archives and here

She often sent recipes as gifts with the cakes themselves, and sometimes lines of verse were written on the backs of her delicately printed missives. Scraps from this poem  linger on the flip side of the recipe above.

It's a lovely, simple cake and I'd say rather good for gifting. Go old-fashioned and wrap up a loaf in a flour sack towel, tied with kitchen twine. A nice break from fruit cake and pumpkin spice, and a beautiful gesture at that. 

Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake
Adapted from the original recipe and a bit from Tori Avey

Preheat oven to 350°
Prepare a 9" x 5" loaf pan

2 c (250 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 t baking soda and 1 t cream of tartar, or 2 t baking powder
1 c (200 g) sugar
1/2 c (1 stick; 113 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 c (120 g) milk, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 c (50 g) coconut flakes, fresh or dried unsweetened. If the latter, soakfor an hour in warm water to rehydrate

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and cream of tartar or baking powder. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until lighter in color and very fluffy, about four minutes. Add each egg, one at a time, beating for one minute between and stopping often to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

On low speed, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk in small amounts: dry/milk/dry/milk/dry. Stop the mixer before all of the dry ingredients are fully incorporated and finish mixing by hand. 

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a small offset spatula, and bake for 50-53 minutes, or until the cake starts pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Lovely on its own, the cake will keep, tightly wrapped in plastic, for a few days. If there's any leftover, it makes an amazing base for a Trifle.

A Short Bit On Blood-Warm

I first came upon the term blood-warm (sometimes blood heat) as a temperature indicator while reading through Hannah Glasse's 1747 book, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple.

It came up in a recipe for a pretty cake to describe the state of heated cream and butter to be used. Instantly captivated by the morbid weirdness of it to my modern mind, more than that, I found it remarkable how intuitive it was. No need for a thermometer to tell me 98.6°, I really could feel it. 

These days we use lukewarm. Interestingly, the word lukewarm dates to at least the 14th century, so why use blood-warm or blood heat I'm not sure. Cursory research tells me nothing—literally nothing—as it pertains to the term and cooking. That said, there must be something on this history out there. If you know, please enlighten me!  

As a culinary tool, blood-warm and blood heat seemed to loose favor as an adjective in the early 20th century, so I was beyond surprised to stumble across this book published in 1988 that uses blood heat copiously in its recipes: 

Anyone familiar with more European-centric baking books and their use of this term?   

The truth behind LET THEM EAT CAKE

Contrary to popular belief . . . 

An old embroidery piece of mine featuring a cake by  Kate Sullivan .

An old embroidery piece of mine featuring a cake by Kate Sullivan.

I learned of this a few years ago upon reading Antonia Fraser's captivating biography, Marie Antoinette: The Journey. In it, she briefly espouses on the popular myth, explaining that the phrase was actually uttered 100 years before Marie had even been born by Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV. Fraser continues, "It was a callous and ignorant statement and she, Marie Antoinette, was neither.

Another important note: The phrase was printed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, the final volume of which was completed by 1769 when Marie Antoinette was just 14; it would be another year before she even arrived at Versailles to marry the Dauphin.

Finally, as for Let them eat brioche versus Let them eat cake? My best guess is that it's just how the English language has adopted the phrase. I'd be curious to know what they say in France; is it still Qu'ils mangent de la brioche, or has it altered to Qu'ils mangent de la gateaux? Anyone know?

The Cake Breaker

It is possible you've never seen one of these—or even know what it is—but in the mid-20th century, it could be found in almost every American kitchen. . 

Patented as the Food Breaker in 1932, this multi-pronged metal and bakelite tool was the invention of an Ohio man named Cale J. Schneider. Though able to serve a variety of "food breaking" needs, it was primarily marketed as a way to slice cake without putting any undue pressure on the delicate beast; Angel Food Cakes, and their ilk, were particularly  susceptible to the squash-factor. 

Click  HERE  to see the Food Breaker patent in its entireity

Click HERE to see the Food Breaker patent in its entireity

Following his death in 1971, the New York Times ran an obituary on May 29th in which Schneider is described as the inventor of a "cake breaker to slice the softest cake . . . currently in use as a comb for Afro-American coiffures." 

There are plenty of original Schneider Cake Breakers available online from Etsy or Ebay, and a few firms still manufacture them today. 

Side note: Schneider also invented sweet corn holders called Kob Knobs and a Food Slicer. The guy was really into prongs.