A Literary Christmas: Emily Dickinson’s Recipes

As the holidays draw near, my Spanish family begins to lobby for “American” Christmas cookies. It’s impossible to give them the excuse of professional deadlines: some free moments have to be found to bake their favorites. I should, indeed, be flattered. My husband’s family has more than its share of good cooks and Christmas Eve supper would be brilliant without my finishing touch.

Dividing my time between Christmas baking and translation projects, I often think about the American poet Emily Dickinson’s passion for baking. Although Dickinson was reticent to share her verses with others, she was generous with the bounty of her New England kitchen. She might have even found inspiration there. According to The Emily Dickinson Museum website, she dashed off snippets of verse on the wrappers of bars of baking chocolate and wrote “The Things that never can come back, are several” on the back of her favorite recipe for coconut cake. The Museum provides one of Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe (reproduced here) in its website and sells a collection of the poet’s favorites through its online store. These are hearty, old-fashioned types of sweets—good choices for anyone who might be thinking of sending a Christmas care package by messenger service or post. Authors suffering a writer’s block might try a few hours in the kitchen with Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe; inspiration just might come to them as it did to the belle of Amherst.

The Things that never can come back, are several —

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
Returning here —
“Here!” There are typic “Heres” —
Foretold Locations —
The Spirit does not stand —
Himself — at whatsoever Fathom
His Native Land —

Dickinson scholar Nelly Lambert has adapted the poet’s coconut cake to modern tastes. You can compares the original recipe with Lambert’s modern version in the NPR website. Lambert’s updated version unfortunately relies heavily on a number of products not found in Spanish supermarkets, so one day I’ll have to make my own adaptation of the original. Food writer and cookbook author Stephanie Stiavetti invited fellow foodie Vera Marie Badertscher to share her adaptation of Dickinson’s recipe for “Black Cake with readers of her blog The Culinary Life. Badertscher’s recipe for Black Cake calls for a whopping nineteen eggs, two pounds of butter, and half a pint of brandy. She wittily shares Dickinson’s personal note (not my father’s BEST brandy) and advises not admitting to your cardiologist that you ate such a thing. I agree with her.

The things that never come back are several, if not many, but Christmas is a time for calling up sweet memories of the past and bringing traditions to life. Out come the worn and spotted cookbooks, my grandmother’s maple rolling pin, the cookie cutters, and the bars of baking chocolate. The following is a recipe for the malted milk cookies I make every year. As sour cream is difficult to find in Spain, I use creme fraiche.

Malted Milk Rounds

4 cups all-purpose flour                    2 cups packed brown sugar

3/4 cup malted milk powder            2 eggs

2 tsp. baking powder                         1/3 cup sour cream

1/2 tsp. baking soda                          2 tsp. vanilla

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup butter or margarine

Sift flour and blend the first five ingredients thoroughly. Cream the butter and gradually add the sugar. Blend in the eggs and beat mixture well. Add half the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the sour cream and vanilla and stir in the remaining dry ingredients. Chill dough for at least 4 hours.

Pre-heat oven to 375º. Roll the dough to a thickness of 1/4″. Cut shapes with metal cookie cutters and plave on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake for between 12 and 15 minutes. When cool, ice with malt frosting. These cookies are also wonderful with a chocolate glaze.

Malt Frosting

1/2 cup packed brown sugar                   1/3 cup malted milk powder

1/4 cup butter or margarine                    1/2″ tsp. vanilla

1/4 cup milk                                                 3 cups confectioners’ sugar

Cook brown sugar, butter, and milk in a saucepan until the sugar is melted. Remove from heat. Stir in malted milk powder and vanilla. Blend in confectioners’ sugar until the frosting has the right consistency for spreading.

These cookies freeze well and are great “dunkers” in a cup of hot chocolate or coffee.