What Emily Dickinson Ate – Coconut Cake

God gave a Loaf to every Bird —
But just a Crumb — to Me —
I dare not eat it — tho’ I starve —
My poignant luxury —

To own it — touch it —
Prove the feat — that made the Pellet mine —
Too happy — for my Sparrow’s chance —
For Ampler Coveting —

It might be Famine — all around —
I could not miss an Ear —
Such Plenty smiles upon my Board —
My Garner shows so fair —

I wonder how the Rich — may feel —
An Indiaman — An Earl —
I deem that I — with but a Crumb —
Am Sovereign of them all —

~ Emily Dickinson

Last week, I blogged about poet Emily Dickinson’s lesser known passion– cooking and baking. I was able to track down one of her actual recipes, a Coconut Cake– or, as Emily spelled it, Cocoanut Cake. Tomorrow (December 10) is Emily’s birthday, so I decided to celebrate the life of this brilliant American poet by baking her Coconut Cake.

Emily’s hand written recipe is being shown at The Poet’s House in New York City as part of their Emily Dickinson Exhibition, which runs through January 28, 2012. The exhibit is described as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a rare selection of original manuscripts, letters, fragments, rare books, archival materials and even a recipe for coconut cake belonging to Emily Dickinson.” I’m hoping to stop by and see the exhibit on my next trip to New York.

Here is a scan of the actual recipe (or, as recipes were called in Emily’s time, the “receipt”). It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve transcribed it below.


Image courtesy of Poet’s House c/o President and Fellows of Harvard College

Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake

1 cup cocoanut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoonful soda
1 teaspoonful cream of tartar

This makes one half the rule–

No baking instructions are given, but anybody with a basic understanding of baking techniques should have no trouble with this recipe. It’s a simple cake or “quick bread,” meaning it uses baking powder as a leavening agent. The mixture of cream of tartar and baking soda produces baking powder; you can combine the cream of tartar and soda as written, or simply substitute 1 1/2 tsp baking powder. I’ve written out detailed instructions for baking the cake below so you can try it yourself.

Regarding the phrase “one half the rule,” it would make sense that Emily would want a recipe in half-portion. A loaf-sized cake would be easier to wrap up and send than a full cake. Though Emily was reclusive and rarely left her home, she was known to send food gifts to friends and acquaintances. In Emily’s obituary, her brother’s wife and lifelong friend Susan Dickinson describes her sister-in-law’s fondness for sending out care packages:

Very few in the village knew Miss Emily personally, except among the older in habitants, although the fact of her seclusion and intellectual brilliancy was one of the familiar (Amherst) traditions. There are many homes among the classes into which her dainty treasures of fruit and flowers and almost ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent, that will forever miss those dainty traces of her unselfish devotion…


The Dickinson Children, painted by Otis Allen Bullard ca 1840. From the Dickinson Room at Houghton Library, Harvard University. Emily is on the left– this is one of the few surviving images of the poet.

I made this recipe the old fashioned way, beating the butter by hand and using an antique flour sifter to get into the spirit of the project. I stopped short of grating the coconut by hand. Grating fresh coconut is time consuming, so I used dried grated coconut instead of fresh. If you want to take that shortcut too, soak the dried coconut in warm water until soft and drain well before integrating it into the batter. You can also use soft sweetened baker’s coconut, if you wish– this cake is not overly sweet, so the extra sweetness from the baker’s coconut wouldn’t hurt.

Next time I bake this, I’ll probably use a large loaf pan. The medium loaf pan (8 inches) compressed the cake batter a bit, which made it billow up on top. Not a big deal, though (in fact, the effect is kind of pretty). The texture is not light or airy, it’s more like a dense pound cake. Using cake flour instead of regular flour would lighten up the texture a bit. My favorite part of this cake is the lovely golden crust, which gives it enough structure for dunking in coffee or tea. You might want to bake one yourself and give it to a literary friend as a holiday gift!

Thank you to Stephen and Christina at Poet’s House for their help with this post.

Happy birthday, Emily Dickinson!

Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar + 1/2 tsp baking soda OR 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup shredded coconut
Servings: Makes 1 loaf cake (about 8 servings)
Kosher Key: Dairy
  • Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour and cream of tartar + baking soda OR baking powder. I used my antique sifter to get in the "Emily Dickinson" mood.
  • In a medium mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together till the mixture is light and fluffy, and the sugar is well incorporated into the butter. I did this by hand, the old fashioned way, like Emily Dickinson would have. It took several minutes. You can do it much faster with an electric mixer.
  • Mix in the eggs, then the milk.
  • Add liquid ingredients to dry and stir till just incorporated. A thick batter will form. Do not overmix.
  • Fold in the shredded coconut. If your shredded coconut is dry (not fresh), rehydrate it with a little warm water and drain well before mixing it into the batter. Again, don't overmix.
  • Spread the batter into a small loaf pan.
  • Bake the cake for 50-60 minutes on the middle rack of your oven till cooked through and golden brown around the edges. Test with a skewer or toothpick for doneness in a few places-- if the toothpick comes out clean (no wet batter sticking to it), it's done.
  • The cake is not overly sweet, which was perfect for me (I don't like my desserts too sweet). If you want to sweeten it up, use a bit more sugar, or use sweetened coconut instead of regular coconut. Enjoy!


Comments (63)Post a Comment

  1. I liked you on FB because of a recipe you had, but I really enjoy your site. I am very fond of Emily Dickenson, thanks for the recipe and the information.

  2. The fact that it is not overly sweet is perfect for me. I never eat icing and usually don’t put it on my cakes but this with a cup of cardamon coffee in the morning sounds wonderful. I might even read one of her poems to the kids while we enjoy it.

  3. Interesting that “recipe” used to be called “receipt”…in German, “Rezept” is how you say “recipe” but a receipt is a “Quittung”. Two related languages separated by a(n English) channel. Looking foward to baking the cake. Thanks!

  4. Thank you so so much for this recipe ! I always like your recipes
    (especially your latest ones with the smoked paprika!) but this one nailed two of my biggest loves – literature and cooking, pure genius ! Keep on blogging !

  5. What a great way to honor her than baking this cake, to me it’s very poetic. Coconut is one of my favorite fruits, I love the coconut milk, I use it all the time. I definitely going to bake this for my family and tell them the history about it. Thank you for the recipe and the history. :D

    1. Oh no! The loaf is in the oven right now and I did not grease my loaf tin. T-T (first time ever to bake). But this recipe is fairly easy to follow and the fact that Emily followed this recipe is a plus for bookworms like me! I hope it comes out well. I hope it doesnt stick to the pan! Thanks for the “receipt”!

  6. Tori this is fabulous. The actual recipe from Emily herself, truly cool. Did you get to go see it and others in person? I would love to go and wander about looking at all her things. I have to say this one speaks to me. I am a huge Emily fan and I also love coconut. So this one has to get bookmarked and made.

  7. Thank you for the wonderful article and beautiful cake recipe. The accompanying photos were a great addition and I can’t wait to bake this coconutty deliciousness! I may just make a chocolate glaze to drizzle on each slice prior to serving.

  8. What a beautiful tribute for such a talented poet. This bread looks wonderful and I think it’s so amazing/interesting/exciting that you were able to get the real recipe to replicate. :)

  9. Can’t wait to try this. FYI, Susan Dickinson was not Emily’s sister. She was Emily’s beloved, who broke Emily’s heart by marrying her brother Austin. Dickinson’s famous “She Poems” (love poems to a woman, like “Ourselves were wed one summer”) are said to be addressed to Susan. In the painting you posted, the siblings are Austin and Lavinia Dickinson.

  10. The recipe looks great, but when considering what goods were imported into that part of the US, cocoa (chocolate) nut would be a much more likely choice than coconuts during that period of time. Are you sure she didn’t mean chocolate? It’s still called cocaonut in many parts of the world. I’m not an expert on baking, not even close. I just wonder if the recipe would work equally well with cocoa powder. =)

    1. Hi Jul, great question. Based on receipts and records from Emily’s local general store, historians have been able to determine that she was in fact purchasing imported coconut fruit (not cocoa). I’m not sure if the recipe would work well with cocoa powder, but it wouldn’t hurt to try!

  11. I am making this bread for my 6th grade class because I am giving a presentation on Emily Dickinson. But, I used salted butter – and forgot to soak my coconut (which was sweetened). Hopefully, the salt and sugar will balance each other out. I will let you know how it turns out.

    1. Hi Kiley, that is so cool! It should turn out fine, sweetened coconut is already moist and shouldn’t need any soaking. Hopefully the salt isn’t too overpowering. Let me know how it turns out! :)

  12. Shiksa: I would like to make this bread. Could you clarify if this is sweetened or unsweetened coconut in the ingredients list.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Hazel, if you read the blog that appears before the recipe, it will answer your question. I’ll copy and paste that section here for you:

      “I made this recipe the old fashioned way, beating the butter by hand and using an antique flour sifter to get into the spirit of the project. I stopped short of grating the coconut by hand. Grating fresh coconut is time consuming, so I used dried grated coconut instead of fresh. If you want to take that shortcut too, soak the dried coconut in warm water until soft and drain well before integrating it into the batter. You can also use soft sweetened baker’s coconut, if you wish– this cake is not overly sweet, so the extra sweetness from the baker’s coconut wouldn’t hurt.”

  13. Adore Emily Dickkenson and I love coconut cakes. Am baking this to go with a mystery I am reading today about Emily Dickenson and her family. A perfect compliment. Thank you this will be a new high tea favorite in our house. Divine!

  14. Looks very good. Want to make it. Do you think I could use coconut milk instead of sweet milk? Might be even a more coconut taste if I did.

  15. Thank you so much for this recipe! I was thrilled to meld 2 of my favorite things–literature and baking! This cake is delicious, though I did add a scant tsp. of coconut extract and 1/2 tsp. almond extract for a bit of a “macaroon” flavor–sooo good! Thanks for the post, as well as the original image of the recipe. =)

  16. I love to cook and especially bake. I was taught by my maternal grandmother. I will definately try this recipe. I’ve got one those sifter’s–got it from a second hand store and I love it!!

  17. Can’t wait to make this for my son. I’m Gluten intolerant so I can’t eat it. I love recipes that I can put someone’s name on and this one is extra special. Thank You PBS for bringing this to our attention!! :)

  18. You can get freshly grated coconut FROZEN, no sugar added, no preservatives added, no soaking necessary. It’s frozen at the source, so it is the next best thing to grating a fresh coconut. Bring it to room temperature before you start making the cake.

  19. (Also, forgot to say: I’m still using my sifter I bought 33 years ago which looks exactly like the one in your photo. I had no idea it was “old fashioned”, and I’m looking forward to finding out what the rest of the world is using these days!)

  20. Emily Dickinson must have been extremely fond of coconut cake! I wrote about a different version (without leavening) of the coconut cake recipe which Emily received from Mrs. Carmichael. On the reverse of this other recipe, in about 1881, Emily penciled the poem “The things which never can come back.” Here’s a link to the other coconut cake recipe she used appearing on my guest post at Four Pounds Flour link to fourpoundsflour.com

  21. I own a shop in Ringgold,GA called Mizz Kim’s Creations. I make bath and body products and other things to lift the spirit. I love Emily Dickinson and actually portrayed her in the one woman show The Belle of Amherst while in grad school. So, to celebrate her birthday, next week I will be serving this cake. I have also made a lotion in her honor named ,simply, “Emily”. Thank you for posting this recipe and information.!

  22. I made this for some friends, now I’m making them 2 loaves at a time. They – and I – love that it’s not too sweet, and we also enjoy finding things to pair it with: coffee, tea, milk, ice cream. I had someone suggest making a bread pudding out of it – imagine that! People who say they don’t like coconut seem to love this. The recipe doesn’t tell you that you also get a sense of accomplishment – it takes on meaning for people when you make them something from scratch. I use King Arthur all-purpose flour, sweetened coconut shreds in a 7.5 oz package (that’s 2 2/3 cups – I eyeball half the package for each loaf), and I also use Sugar in the Raw, an unrefined sugar that has a faint molasses taste. I don’t have my grandmother’s sifter, but I do have a large strainer that works just fine for sifting the flour (I use it for making gravy, usually – works like magic). This is so easy – less than 15 minutes to prep and 60 minutes to bake. I really recommend this, to anybody.

  23. Awesome receipt. :-). I actually have cocoanut flour, cocoanut sugar and shreded cocoanut. Also will replace butter with cocoanut oil. I’m a cocoanut freak! :-). The cocoanut palm tree is called the tree of life and it’s has lots of nourishing properties.
    Mmmmm yum. Will be making this cake on Saturday for my dad’s birthday but I will double the rule. My family is going to love it. :-)

  24. As a new Emily Dickinson fan and avid baker, I am delighted to come across your beautifully researched, written, and photographed post on her cake recipe!! Thank you so much–Bravo!!

  25. I have been searching for a perfect coconut cake recipe, and must say, this is it! I tried this cake recipe and only alteration I did was, instead of plain milk I used unsweetened coconut milk, it was so dense, moist and delicious!
    Thank you so much for sharing this, and really appreciate all your hard work. I love your website!

    Thanks again

  26. I made this once with gluten free flour mix, coconut milk and half butter & the other half coconut oil. I also avoided sugar, used less milk & honey & maple syrup to sweeten.
    It was delicious!! I am going to re-make it for my birthday. Thanks for this awesome recipe & website!

  27. Hi Tori,
    I tried this case and sadly it didn’t turn out the way it should have. i used 1 1/2 tsps baking powder instead of the soda and cream of tartar. my cake pan was 8 x 4 inches. the cake was light brown on the bottom and the sides but completely white on top. i baked it for about 55 minutes and the toothpick came out clean. i don’t know what i did wrong. please help. i don’t know what i did wrong. please help.

    1. Hi Kaveri, I’m sorry, I’m not sure but it sounds like you did everything right. Other readers have had a good experience with the recipe. Wish I knew what went wrong! Sorry I can’t be of more help.

  28. What a joy to find this recipe! I adore Emily Dickinson, and she is one of the major reasons I began my own website. I have just invited my visitors to bake a cake, have an Emily party with everyone wearing white and reading poetry. What fun! Thank you so much for this recipe!

  29. I have just made this lovely cake, it is in the oven as I write. I will let you know how it turns out. I love this site, So many great things on here. Thank you so much :O)

  30. yesterday evening I had coconut rapee to use and I found in a simple book of USA recipes published in Italy a coconut cake; it tastes very good and this evening by Google with my great surprise I discover here that this was a recipe loved by Emily Dickinson; all this is very nice, thanks for the gift that you have brought from Emily to me

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