We discover recipes in many ways. We stumble upon old family recipes, we cut out recipes we're excited about in magazines and bookmark them from online sites, and friends often share their own favorites. In the case of writer Nelly Lambert, you also find them in the most unlikely of places: the stacks of a research library.
While researching Emily Dickinson for her dissertation, Lambert discovered the topic of baking in many of her letters and recently wrote about her discovery for NPR. Surprised and intrigued, she kept digging and found recipes for at least five of the twelve desserts Dickinson commonly referred to.
Emily Dickinson was an infamous recluse, but not an infamous baker. While inside the house writing, she would take baking breaks and often lower baskets full of cake down from her window to crowds of children waiting below.
After testing quite a few of the recipes, Nelly Lambert concluded that the coconut cake recipe is the best: "each of Dickinson's cakes is satisfying, but her coconut cake, perhaps because it has a layered taste and perhaps because it is both substantial and light at the same time, reminds me of the combination of whimsy and gravity in her poems."
The poet seemed intrigued with the creativity of baking, so her precise notes of quantites and measurements leave much to the imagination. Since Lambert has so many friends who have food allergies, she revamped the cake to be gluten and dairy-free. She says it's not the light and fluffy coconut cake that many of us think of when we hear of the beloved Southern dessert, but it's a cinch to pull together and has lovely flavor and a bit more heft, making it particularly nice with coffee or tea in the afternoon.
Try the Recipe: Emily Dickinson's Coconut Cake
Related: Fresh Coconut Mousse Cake
(Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections; Eliza Barclay/NP)