Friday, January 3, 2014

RK0012 - Emily Dickinson's two coconut cakes

Several years ago I heard a story on NPR about a recipe that Emily Dickinson had sent a friend in a letter. The recipe was for coconut cake.  And it is very simple:

1 lb. sugar
½ lb. butter
½ lb. flour
6 eggs
1 grated coconut

No instructions were given.  However, being the history sleuth of 19th century cake baking receipts and baking technology, that I was and am, I simply had to try it.  At first I was afraid. I was petrified…and all that green frosting!  But I digress.  I was afraid.  So I activated my What-the-Hell mode and went for it.  On my first try,  I thought, "I bet Emily used other stuff like cream of tartar, milk and baking soda, etc."  And I added it because I thought the batter looked 'weird'.  The cake came out ok.  Then I tried again and went hard core using only the ingredients she wrote.  The results were even better except for the crusty top.  It was richer and moister than the first try and had a better velvety texture.  It's clear that this recipe is a butter cake.  Pound cake is an example of a butter cake, a very old example, maybe even the first recipe for a fine cake.  Emily's recipe is very close to a pound cake, in fact it's practically a ½ pound cake, except for that pound of sugar. Damn.

In order for cake recipes to work they have to be balanced proportionally.  The pound cake is a 1:1:1:1 and it has worked for centuries.  I must admit that I have not had much success with making a traditional pound cake, but I think it is because I have not creamed the butter or beat the eggs long enough.  When I make them they come out a bit oily, but still tasty. I must try it again.  But I digress.  As I was saying it's all about proportion (and preparation) but there are some things you can change.  I forget the exact rule, but, for example, in the pound cake you can increase or decrease the sugar by a certain amount and the cake would still work.  The extra sugar (or egg or flour etc) changes the texture, but it doesn't result in failure.  With Emily's recipe the sugar is DOUBLE the flour!  That's a big variance.  And it shows.  The extra sugar produces the crusty top which slides off like dead skin from a snake.  It's not a pretty sight. However the cake underneath is delicious.

I have some thoughts about that crusty top.  I know that it is caused by too much sugar.  My first thought is, is that Emily was correct with the ingredients, but…but that crusty top!  Which leads me to think about how she measured her ingredients.  Maybe her Lb of sugar was actually less than a Lb.

When I make this cake I weigh the ingredients as per the receipt.  But I've been doing some research.  In 19th century American cookbooks cake recipe ingredients are often noted in weight measurement.  Which seems simple.  But there are also equivalency charts that translate weight into volume measure for each ingredient.  Here is a representative chart:
One quart (4 cups) of flour = 1 Lb.
Two cups of butter = 1 Lb.
One generous pint of liquid = 1 Lb.
Two cups of granulated sugar = 1 Lb.
The cup used is the common kitchen cup, holding half a pint.

First some notes on this chart.

Flour can weigh differently depending on the moisture in the air and also the type of flour varies in weight. Bread flour is much heavier than cake flour.  I assume that this measurement is for cake flour since these kinds of charts head the cake chapter of cookbooks. Also, I'll assume it means dry flour. Often recipes instruct to dry the flour first in a low oven.  Below are some measurements I found on which justifies the old time equivalency chart.

cake flour, sifted
1 cup = 3 1/2 ounces

cake flour, unsifted
1 cup = 4 ounces

From this we can assume the flour was measured unsifted since 1 Lb is 16 ounces.
Two cups of granulated sugar is 14 oz. I measured this myself.  Again, moisture will make a difference.  One Lb of water is exactly 2 cups. The butter equivalency is accurate.

Let's assume that Emily took these equivalencies at face value. If she did her recipe might look like this:
2 c sugar, which to her is 1 Lb is actually (14 oz)
2 c unsifted flour (8 oz)
1 c butter (8 oz)
6 eggs (10.5 oz) (large eggs)

I wonder if I used 14 oz of sugar instead of 16 oz, would I get that crusty top? Maybe I need to reduce the sugar even more.

There was a great baking website that a retired professional baker produced which had the best information on baking. I remember him writing about how much one could vary the proportions of ingredients and still produce a fine cake i.e. one without a crusty top.
The Lp is over.  I think I'll search for that site after I put on another Lp. I wonder what will jump out at me.
I just found a good site.  It explains baking ratios.  I am assuming that this is a high ratio cake.

With the tips from in mind we see the sugar in Emily's recipe is about 3-4 ounces too much, since sugar and flour should weigh nearly the same, within 20%.  I bet if I reduced the sugar to 1.5 cups I'd get a better top, but will the cake be as moist?
And looking at the eggs and butter, they are 32% greater than the sugar.  Maybe I should increase the flour by 4 ounces and omit two eggs and replace them with a yolk.

2 c sugar (14 oz)
3 c unsifted flour (12 oz)
1 c butter (8 oz)
4 whole eggs + 1 yolk (7.66 oz)

This looks better.

Flour is within 20% of the sugar at 14%.
Eggs are within 20% of the butter at 4.25%
Butter + Eggs are within 20% of the sugar at 11%.

I think I'll try this. Although, I'd love to know how Emily made the cake. How did she bake it? What kind of pans did she use?  At what temperature did she bake it? Did she do something else, like cover the top of the cake whilst baking it to prevent the crustiness?  And what about that coconut?  Which reminds me…

Fresh coconut tastes like ass.  Or at least the ones I've bought do.  I've been using unsweetened dry coconut which I chop in the food processor.  I use 1 cup of chopped coconut in these recipes. I wonder effect that has on the cake?

Maybe I ought to account for that.  Coconut is highly alkaline and white sugar is highly acidic as per

So some extra sugar would be good to counteract the alkalinity of the coconut, right?  Maybe it should be 16 oz of sugar, but then my variance soars past 20%.  I could bump up the sugar to 15 oz and still be within the 20% variance. Score!

Okay. I apologize for posting this before testing it.  I was wrong!  I admit it, however considering the number of people who would try it is near zero, i don't think I caused anyone to waste their ingredients.

I did test the 2 cups of sugar is 1 Lb (which is actually 14 oz.) recipe today.  And I did something different.  I baked the cake in layers instead of a Angel food pan (cake pan with removable bottom).  I didn't get a crusty top!  I haven't tasted it yet. I guess I ought to do that now. 

Hold on.

I just cut a slice.  It is warm. The crumb is fine.  It's not crumbly at all.  The texture is velvety.  It doesn't need any frosting.  The bottom is very brown and I bet that was caused by two things: high sugar content and dark pans.  I only have dark pans now, I'm saving up for some nice aluminum ones.  All in all it was a success.  Now that I think about it. It is very important to bake cakes in the right size pan.  I imagine that this recipe would do well baked as small cakes, like cupcakes. 

So this is recipe I used. Emily's exact recipe except I am figuring that when she wrote 1 Lb she used the equivalency chart and used 2 cups.

2 c sugar, which to her is 1 Lb is actually (14 oz)
2 c unsifted flour (8 oz)
1 c butter (8 oz)
6 eggs (10.5 oz) (large eggs)
1 c finely chopped dry unsweetened coconut.

  • All ingredients at room temperature.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • If using a dark pan, lower 25 degrees.
  • Prepare two 9 inch round cake pans by lining the bottom with greased wax paper.
  • Beat eggs until frothy and gently add 1 cup of sugar (I also included 1 t cream of tartar to help it get thick.)  After about 10 minutes the eggs will have increased 7 fold.  The egg should be very thick and fall in ribbons off the beaters.
  • Cream the butter until glossy.  I leave my butter out overnight. It should be very soft.
  • After the butter is creamed slowly add the second cup of sugar until they incorporated and smooth.
  • Next add the egg in four parts to the creamed butter and beat.
  • Mix the coconut and flour.  
  • In three parts add the flour to the butter/egg mixture and beat for a 1-2 until the flour is fully incorporated. Do not over beat at this step.
  • Divide between the two pans and bake for 30-35 minutes.
  • Let  cool in pans on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes before removing them from the pans.

You can do what you like now.  It doesn't need frosting, but frost it if you like.

Now what shall I listen to as I drink my buttered rum?

I just popped on the turntable A Dolls Life: A New Musical (but at this point an old and not 'successful' musical (had you even heard of it?)) with music by Larry Grossman, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It was produced by Hal Prince.  Pretty big stuff and I like it. Go look for a copy, but only after reading the rest of this and baking Emily's recipe.  Oh, and by the way…Emily has another coconut cake recipe:

1 c  coconut
2 c flour
1 c sugar
½ c butter
½ c milk
2 eggs
½ t baking soda
1 t cream of tartar

This makes half the rule.

Even though this recipe is missing instructions it probably looks familiar, especially if you're a cake geek like me.  With the exception of the coconut, it is a basic two-egg butter layer cake. This recipe is enough for (2) 8-inch layers. I suppose it could be baked in a loaf pan, but I imagine that it would change the texture.  There are specific recipes for loaf cakes.  Loaf cake ingredient proportions and baking temperature differ from the layer cake. There is a woman with a blog who made this recipe in a loaf. Go take a look at it at

The general process for mixing and baking the second Emily coconut cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
1. Sift flour and measure 2 cups. Add the cream of tartar and mix to combine.
2. Beat egg whites until very thick adding ¼ c sugar gradually. They should be like a shiny meringue. (5-8 minutes)
3. In a separate bowl cream butter until smooth and shiny while adding ¾ c of sugar gradually. (approx. 5 minutes)
4. Add egg yolks to butter one at a time and beat until thick and fluffy. (approx. 10 minutes, 5 min each yolk)
5. Add flavoring extracts. (1 t vanilla)
6. Mix the baking soda into the milk.
7. Add flour and milk alternately in 3 parts ending with flour. For example, ⅓ four and ½ milk, ⅓ flour and ½ milk ending with the remaining 3rd of flour. Mixing should happen quickly 1.5 minutes for each part, totaling 3-5 minutes.
8. Fold in coconut followed by folding in the beaten egg whites into the batter carefully and quickly. (2-3 min)
9. Divide batter evenly into two light colored metal 8 in round pans.  Tap pans on table to break any large bubbles. Move batter from the center of the pan to the sides for an even top. Bake for 25-30 minutes.  Test cake at about the 25 minute mark.
10.  Cool cakes in pans for 5-10 minutes or so on a wire rack. Then remove cake from the pan, place on wire racks and cool completely.
11. Fill and frost.

I think I need to cleanse my palate with some caviar and crème fraîche.  And I'll listen
to some Webern too.

BTW the word receipt is just an old-fashioned word for recipe.

Leave a comment if you have any questions.