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.
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
“Here!” There are typic “Heres” –
The Spirit does not stand—
Himself—at whatsoever Fathom
His Native Land—
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.