A Coconut Cake for Emily Dickinson

by Cara Nicoletti on June 10, 2014

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This post has been a long time coming. I’ve baked and photographed and eaten this coconut cake three times with the intention of sharing the recipe here, but up until now, you have not seen it. The problem wasn’t that the cake or the photographs weren’t good enough, the problem was that I couldn’t decide which story to connect this cake to. There is coconut cake in Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, it even recently got a small mention in Ruth Reichl’s new novel, Delicious! I’ve been avoiding what I know is the best option—Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Things that never can come back, are several”– which she wrote in scratchy but elegant handwriting on the back of a recipe for coconut cake. It is one of my favorite poems, but gut-wrenching enough that a giant, flamboyant coconut cake has never felt appropriate. This is hard when a giant, flamboyant coconut cake is what your heart craves, and nothing else—not even homeliest but most delicious coconut quickbread—will do.


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The poem, like so many of Dickinson’s, reflects on loss and death, and the precarious, fickle nature of happiness.

The Things that never can come back, are several—
Childhood—some forms of hope—the Dead—
Though joys—like men—may sometimes make a journey—
And still abide—
We do not mourn for Traveler, or Sailor,
Their Routes are fair—
But think enlarged of all that they will tell us
Returning here—
“Here!” There are typic “Heres” –
Foretold Locations—
The Spirit does not stand—
Himself—at whatsoever Fathom
His Native Land—

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For Dickinson, the kitchen was a place of spontaneous inspiration and peacefulness. Many of her poems, like this one, were scribbled on the backs and in the margins of recipes. Food makes it into a good deal of her poems, and her letters are filled with accounts of her baking adventures. Later in her life, when she became completely reclusive, baking was a way for her to stay connected to the outside world. She sent cakes and candies to friends in the mail with her letters, and lowered gingerbread cake in a basket out her window and down to the neighborhood children below.

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In third grade I took a trip to see Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. I couldn’t, at that point, understand much of Dickinson’s poetry, despite having discussed “Hope is the thing with feathers” in school, but I was fascinated by her strangeness. Looking up at her bedroom, the place where for so many years her neighbors saw her standing, I was certain that I saw her, a ghostly figure in the window, donning a dress as white and many-layered as this cake.

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Cake Ingredients:
Makes 1 (9-inch) 4-layer cake
butter and flour for greasing cake pans
2 ¾ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 sticks room temperature unsalted butter
1 ¾ cups granulated sugar
1 cup cream of coconut
4 large eggs, yolks and whites separated (place the whites in the fridge after separating)
1 teaspoon good vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/8 teaspoon salt

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Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting
Note: if you decide to make a double-layer cake instead of splitting it into 4 layers, cut this frosting recipe in half
4 (8oz) packages full-fat cream cheese, room temperature
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup cream of coconut
2 teaspoons vanilla
pinch of salt
about 6 cups unsweetened coconut flakes, toasted and cooled

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Directions:
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Line the bottom of 2 cake pans with parchment paper. Butter the parchment and dust it with flour, tapping out the excess. This batter is sticky, don’t skip this step, even if you have a nonstick cake pan!
In a large bowl, sift together cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set it aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat butter until smooth, about 1 minute, add sugar and beat until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add cream of coconut, egg yolks and vanilla and beat until smooth.
Alternate between adding the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to your batter until everything is incorporated and the batter is smooth.
Transfer the batter to a very large bowl and wash and dry the bowl of your electric mixer. Add egg whites and salt to mixing bowl and whip to stiff (but not dry) peaks with the whisk attachment. Gently fold egg whites into batter until fully incorporated.
Divide batter between two cake pans and bake in the center of your oven until a tester comes out clean—about 45 minutes. Allow cakes to cool on a cooling rack completely before frosting.

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Frosting Directions:
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat cream cheese until light and fluffy. Add butter and beat until smooth. Add sugar, cream of coconut, vanilla, and salt, and beat until smooth.

Assembly:
I chose to split my cake layers in half to make a four-layer cake, but you don’t have to do this. I like to split my cakes with a piece of thread, rather than trying to make an even cut through crumbly cake with an unwieldy serrated knife. Once your cakes are split (or not), place the first layer on your cake stand. Spread about 1 cup of frosting onto cake and top with 1 cup shredded coconut. Repeat with remaining layers. Frost the outside and top with remaining coconut flakes.

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Leave a Comment

Nicola Miller Editor of Mumsnet Suffolk & Norfolk June 10, 2014 at 3:37 pm

I really think I have died and gone to heaven- this is the second Southern coconut cake related article I have read today, the other being Jeffrey Steingarten’s ‘Coconut: The Queen of Cakes’, originally published in US Vogue, and I can think of no better subject for a nuanced consideration.

My daughter has made the classic ( or should it be called Uber?) Paul Prudhomme version; a tall stacked Rebecca Rather coconut layer cake; the girlier Magnolia Bakery attempt and James Villas’ Mother’s coconut cake which comes with generations of Southern expectation and airs. All are sublime and sublimely different and now we have yours, or rather Emily Dickinson’s to add to the coconut canon.

Thank you, thank you. We will be making this VERY soon.

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Cara Nicoletti June 10, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Oh thank you for alerting me to that other coconut cake article, Nicola, I can never get enough of them! Please do let me know how this turns out if you make it!

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Coco Lopez June 10, 2014 at 5:24 pm

id eat the whole cake in ten minutes

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Cara Nicoletti June 10, 2014 at 5:28 pm

Coco Lopez, huge fan of your work.

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Deb June 10, 2014 at 9:43 pm

I can’t even look at this cake without salivating.
Coconut has always been a weakness for me. Another wonderful post but why am I surprised?!
You are amazing!

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Elizabeth Aquino June 11, 2014 at 2:46 pm

This is wonderful. I tore out of some magazine or printed off of some website, Emily’s recipe for her coconut cake — or did it come from that big book of her fragments? Anyway, your recipe looks divine. I always say that my third child was made from coconut cake — I visited a certain bakery several times a month and ate enormous slices of coconut cake, trying to satisfy some sort of weird craving!

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Alan Richter June 11, 2014 at 8:55 pm

I cannot wait to try this recipe, and to be apart of Ms. Dickinson.

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Emily June 12, 2014 at 5:55 pm

This is one of the best tasting coconut cake I’ve ever had. Yum. And not just because Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poet.

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Amanda R. June 13, 2014 at 8:14 am

Lovely post and the cake looks delicious. However, Eudora Welty wrote Delta Wedding, not Edith Wharton.

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Cara Nicoletti June 13, 2014 at 9:05 am

whoops! got those EW’s mixed up in my late-night brain. thank you, Amanda!

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Life with Kaishon June 13, 2014 at 10:00 am

What a lovely cake. The whole post is just beautiful.

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Kate @ booksaremyfavouriteandbest June 16, 2014 at 8:18 am

That is magnificent.

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india June 18, 2014 at 12:18 pm

This is so gorgeous. Maybe your most mouth-watering photos yet. Look how STRONG you are, holding up that heavy cake stand with one hand! I want to eat this cake with a strong cup of black coffee. You’re the best.

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Lesley July 16, 2014 at 5:40 pm

There’s something quite pure and raw about that cake – maybe that’s why the link to the poetry. Years ago I saw a one-woman play on Emily Dickinson in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have never forgotten it. It made such an impact on me.

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Natalia July 27, 2014 at 8:46 am

What blogs aspire to. You’re an amazing writer and story teller. I’m thoroughly impressed, the cake is an added bonus. I will be baking it soon and sharing the poem with my friends. PS I found you on IG! xox

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Idania September 19, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Hi Cara! Thank you for this recipe, it looks really good. Would you have the ingredients’ measures in the metric system, specially the butter and the cream cheese, I’m having troubles with these two. If you could give me a hand with this, that would be amazing!

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