Make Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake

Lori Lamothe

Despite protests from fans, Dickinson ended its third—and final—season last December. We no longer get to see America's favorite subversive poet in the Apple TV+ breakout hit that The New Yorker says "might have climbed from the brain of a woke English grad student on an acid trip."

According to creator Alena Smith, Dickinson was always planned as a three-part series:

"When I set out to make Dickinson, I envisioned the show as a three-season journey that would tell the origin story of America's greatest female poet in a whole new way, highlighting Emily's relevance and resonance to our society today."

While fans would have loved to see a fourth season, Dickinson herself would not have been surprised. As she wrote in one of her nearly 2,000 poems, "Fame is a fickle food."
Emily Dickinson, c. 1847.(FastilyClone/Wikimedia)

That also happens to be the title for the season 2 episode in which Emily makes an enormous fruit cake for her family. The cake eventually wins a prize at the Amherst Cattle Show and a few bakers around the web aspired to recreate her masterpiece.

Her Black Cake, the basis for the episode, is no simple feat: it requires three months of aging and involves up to 20 pounds of batter. It's like the War and Peace of baked goods (or maybe 1,789 poems...) and took an entire team of Harvard librarians to recreate. They, too, won a prize.

As you might have guessed, Dickinson was almost as intense about baking as she was about her poems. She may well have been America's first foodie. And while she was whipping up new breads and cakes, she was jotting lines of poetry on the backs of recipes. She scribbled partial poems on anything within reach, including the back of a Parisian chocolate wrapper. For her, creating food and creating poetry seemed to merge.
(Amherst College Digital Collection)

Since I live within driving distance of The Homestead, the spacious colonial she spent her entire life in, I've been on more than a few tours. Aside from her bedroom with its large paned windows and tiny desk, the kitchen was her favorite space. Maybe Dickinson loved baking because it allowed her to express her creative side—something women weren't encouraged to do in the 19th century.

Full disclosure: As much as I love Dickinson, I hate fruit cake. But I'm an avid baker and have even worked as one full-time in the past. Recently, I decided I wanted to reconnect with Dickinson via our shared passion, just not with fruit cake.

Emily started baking when she was young and never stopped. According to her own account, Emily's bread was the only kind her father approved of in his later years. She specialized in desserts as well. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor of The Atlantic and a mentor of sorts, wrote to his wife about her culinary skills: “‘People must have puddings’ this [was said] very dreamily, as if they were comets—so she makes them.”

"I am going to learn to make bread to-morrow. So you may imagine me with my sleeves rolled up, mixing flour, milk, salaratus, etc., with a great deal of grace." —from a letter 14-year-old Emily wrote her friend Abiah Root in 1845

After sorting through her recipes, I came across one that looked easy enough to make—and it involved coconut. There is an inverse ratio between my hatred of dried fruit to my love of all things coconut. So I set out to bake the cake and it was easy as . . .well, pie.

Dickinson's coconut cake has no frosting and no garnish. It's a simple loaf and that gives the recipe a gorgeously rustic quality. Her end note "This makes one half the rule" means she cut the recipe in half, so it's a quick fix to double the ingredients if you want to make a cake with traditional layers. Afterward, you can add cream cheese frosting and coconut on the sides for a sweeter touch. You can also use a thinner icing like the Lemon Drizzle below or sift some confectioner's sugar on top.

Whatever you choose for the topping, the pound-cake texture is moist and makes a perfect dessert to bring to summer get togethers. Emily not only lowered baskets of gingerbread from her bedroom window but she was also immensely fond of care packages—which often involved her baked goods. She would send friends recipes as well, sometimes with a poem tucked into the envelope.

Poetry may have been Dickinson's "letter to the world" but baked goods were another kind of missive that connected her to the community.

Emily Dickinson's Cocoa Nut Cake


1 cup cocoanut (I recommend using sweetened coconut)

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* (you can substitute 1 ½ tsp. of baking powder for the soda and tartar)

"This makes one half the rule–"


Dickinson never wrote down instructions, so I varied these slightly, courtesy of Just a Pinch.

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray an 8-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.

2. Cream butter and sugar together until the mixture is light and fluffy. Mix in the eggs, then the milk.

3. Add dry ingredients and stir till just incorporated.

4. Fold in the shredded coconut.

5. Spread the batter into the pan.

6.Bake for 50 - 60 minutes in the middle rack of the oven until cooked through and golden around the edges. Test with a toothpick for doneness.

Lemon Drizzle


¾ cup confectioners' sugar

2 tsp. lemon juice, approximately


1. Stir 2 lemon juice into confectioners' sugar in a bowl until mixture is combined.

2. Transfer mixture to a plastic bag. Cut a small hole in the corner of the bag. Drizzle mixture over the loaf.

Want to see Dickinson's recipe in her own handwriting? Check out the photo below:
(Poet's House c/o President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Not surprisingly, she wrote a poem on the back of her "Mrs. Carmichaels" coconut cake recipe too. You can read "The Things that can never come back, are several" (1515) at Hello > Poetry.

If you master the coconut cake and want to try Dickinson's other recipes, you can find three more at Mental Floss. The recipe for coconut cookies attests to her love of that flavor and reveals her fondness for the exotic. French chocolate and fresh Caribbean coconuts might be common now but back then the Amherst general store had to order them for her. You can find her recipes for Gingerbread, Corn-cakes, Doughnuts and her prize-winning Rye and Indian bread at Lithub.

With it, I enclose Love's remainder biscuit, somewhat scorched perhaps in baking, but Love's oven is warm." --Emily Dickinson, from her letters

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at


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