‘Tis the season for sweet treats, yes?
Oh dear, I’m writing this just before lunch and it’s really not fair to be gazing upon such deliciousness at this time. Nevertheless, I’ve been saving this one for a while and am delighted the day has finally come!
Several weeks ago my friend Maria drew my attention to an article she’d happened upon on the National Public Radio website regarding the great American poet, Emily Dickinson, “A Coconut Cake from Emily Dickinson: Reclusive Poet, Passionate Baker.” Follow the link to the article and the recipe — in Emily’s handwriting as well as a “21st version” of it by the article’s author, Nelly Lambert.
I’ll paraphrase just a few pieces of the article to make my points. Lambert begins with the lovely revelation that though she was reclusive much of her life, Dickinson had a propensity toward giving and “was known to lower a basket full of cakes from the window of the home she rarely left to crowds of expectant children on the street below. Dickinson probably never met these children, yet she connected with them through her baking.” Isn’t that a great visual? It can’t get more Christmas-y than that, I’d say.
Indeed, even in her obituary, Dickinson’s sister-in-law wrote, “Very few in the village … know Miss Emily personally … [And yet] there are many houses among all classes into which her treasures of fruit and flowers and ambrosial dishes for the sick and well were constantly sent.”
Apparently at least five recipes for treats Dickinson baked are in existence, but Lambert said her coconut cake is especially memorable, “perhaps because it has a layered taste and perhaps because it is both substantial and light at the same time,” reminding her of “the combination of whimsy and gravity in her poems.”
Dickinson mentioned baking on more than one occasion in her letters, including in one to a friend referencing her burnt caramel rule: “I enclose Love’s ‘remainder biscuit,’ somewhat scorched perhaps in baking, but ‘Love’s oven is warm.’ Forgive the base proportions.” Lambert suggests that such statements hint at both Dickinson’s “trademark wit and a zest for life that belies the common image of her as a depressed figure.”
She adds that Dickinson “seemed partial to the creativity of baking, not the rules.” Consider the closing lines of one of her poems: “Spices fly/In the Receipt.” “In other words, ingredients are expressive,” Lambert concludes.
I’ve always personally felt that baking can be as creative an endeavor as any, and as much a release of the soul as other creative acts.
Now, I haven’t made this cake yet, but I do intend to try at some point over the holidays. If you dare to try with me, I hope you’ll share the results. Either way, the marriage of words — food for the soul — and actual food — sustenance for the body — seems a particularly fitting union this time of year.
May your writing and feasting, as well as your generosity of heart, be especially fruitful this season, as it was for our dear writing friend Emily Dickinson.
Happy Holiday Baking!
Q4U: What is your favorite of all Christmas treats?