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“When I make something, a poem or a cake...”

Contents

Introduction

Avocado recipe #1: Esther’s ‘homesick’ treat Ⓥ

Avocado recipe #2: Ladies’ Day Lunch

Sylvia Plath’s trusty angel-topped lemon meringue pie Ⓥ

Sylvia Plath’s heavenly sponge cake

Grandma Greenwood’s economy meatloaf

Tomato Soup Cake

Plath’s ‘gift to NHS workers’ carrot cake Ⓥ

Ted Hughes’ Coffee Ⓥ



Plath loved baking and she loved eating - the evidence is all over her writing. She mentions when she tries a recipe for the first time in her journals, describes food in mouth-watering detail in The Bell Jar, prides herself on her abilities as a housewife and a cook in her letters and writes dreams of cake in her journals. Here we detail how to eat your way through Plath’s life and work by cooking her recipes.


Avocados à la ‘The Bell Jar’, chapter 3

Arrayed on the Ladies’ Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar. I hadn’t had time to eat any breakfast at the hotel cafeteria that morning, except for a cup of over-stewed coffee so bitter it made my nose curl, and I was starving.

***

Under cover of the clinking of water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread. Then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn’t ooze off and ate them… When I finished my first plate of cold chicken and caviar, I laid out another. Then I tackled the avocado and crabmeat salad.


Avocado recipe #1: Esther’s ‘homesick’ treat Ⓥ

Ingredients

  • 2 avocados

  • Grape jelly

  • French dressing (American-style)


To make the jelly

Use ½ the weight of sugar that you have in grapes and add lemon juice to add tartness - we recommend ½ lemon to two boxes (1kg) grapes, and we recommend using red or purple grapes. Bring to a slow boil and continue to simmer for 5-10 minutes or until you have a viscous texture. Set aside 1-2 tablespoons for the avocados, and any extra pour into a sterilized jar - yesterday’s pasta sauce jars are ideal, you will probably need 5-6 jars per kg grapes. The jars will automatically seal themselves as the heat goes out of them if the jelly goes in hot.


NB - do not make jam tarts with leftover grape jelly as it oozes rather than sets and will drip all over anybody who eats one.


For the French dressing

  • You could make your own mayonnaise (see below), but we recommend 4 tbsp. of store-bought

  • 1 tbsp tomato puree. If you don’t have this use 2tbsp passata or reduced tomatoes and 1 less tbsp mayo

  • ½ tsp vinegar

  • 10g butter or 2 tsp avocado oil

  • Spices to taste - we like 1 tsp smokey paprika, 1 tsp tabasco or Worcestershire sauce, ½ tsp garlic powder, ½ tsp white pepper, a dash sage, a dash MSG and two pinches salt.



Add all the ingredients into a saucepan and melt down, thickening with cornstarch if necessary, then pour into the well of your avocado where the stone used to be and devour with a spoon with a beloved family member by your side.


Avocado recipe #2: Ladies’ Day Lunch

Ingredients

  • 2 avocados

  • Fresh white crabmeat or imitation crabsticks - you could dress your own crab or buy it prepared from the store. If using crabsticks then remove the pink outer skin and flake into fine pieces with a fork.

  • Fresh mayonnaise


For the mayonnaise

  • 2 egg yolks

  • 1 tsp mustard - any kind except wholegrain

  • 2 tsp acid - vinegar or lemon juice (you will taste it in the final mayo so make sure to choose the flavour you prefer)

  • 250ml oil - again, you can taste it, so a cold-pressed avocado or olive oil is best, although any vegetable oil works fine

  • Salt and pepper to taste


Put the egg yolks and mustard in a bowl and whisk vigorously until fully combined. Add a small amount of oil and whisk until the sauce is thicker as the oil is incorporated. Add all of the oil like this - small drops, whisking all the time. This can be done in a blender, by hand or with an electric whisk - the trick is to add the oil in tiny batches and whisking continuously. Don’t be afraid to ask a family member to drop in the oil whilst you keep whisking. Be very patient - this may take up to half an hour. Once all the oil is incorporated, whisk in your acid and a dash of salt or pepper, being sure to keep the texture of the mayonnaise.


To assemble the avocados, simply spoon the crab and then the mayonnaise into the avocado pits. If using fresh crab, garnish with delicate, pink-mottled claw meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise. Serve on a bed of mixed salad leaves - watercress and rocket are good - dressed with a light mustard vinaigrette for the sharpness and crunch to cut through the rich food.


Sylvia Plath’s trusty angel-topped lemon meringue pie Ⓥ

The full menu Plath serves at this particular dinner party is roast beef, onion potatoes, corn & mushrooms, green salad, white wine & red & the pie - she finishes the meal with coffees for that sophisticated 50s edge. We recommend the pie with your coffee for a decadent breakfast - you’ll sleep badly with all that sugar and caffeine in your system. This recipe is adapted from Plath’s favourite cookery book, ‘Joy of Cooking’ by Irma S. Rombauer.


For the meringue crust

  • 4 egg whites

  • ½ tsp cream of tartar or potash (this can be left out but your meringue will lose its chewiness and be very short and crispy)

  • ½ cup of caster sugar

  • 1 cup icing sugar


Beat the egg whites vigorously until they go frothy - if using a mixer, start on a low speed and push it to medium after roughly one minute. Add the tartar/potash and one large spoon of sugar and continue to whip the eggs. Each minute add another spoonful of sugar and keep going until all the sugar is incorporated and your mixture is in ‘stiff peaks’ - the way to test this is to hold the bowl upside down and your egg and sugar mixture will not slide at all.


Grease a pie dish well, and spread the meringue mixture along the bottom and sides to make a pie crust. Do not put too much pressure on the meringues as they need to stay airy. Bake in an oven at a low temperature - 110℃ or 200℉ should do it - for roughly two hours. The meringue should be crispy but not too dark in colour - you are essentially drying out the eggs rather than cooking them. To prevent cracks in the meringue do not open the oven during or after cooking, leaving the mixture to come to room temperature without being shocked by cold air. If your mixture does crack, though, don’t worry - just serve directly from the pie dish.


To make vegan meringues, substitute the eggs with 200ml aquafaba (chickpea water) and add 1 tbsp lemon juice and 1tsp vanilla. The vegan crust will probably need to cook about 30 minutes longer - keep an eye on it so it does not go too brown.


For the filling

  • 4 egg yolks

  • ½ cup sugar

  • ½ cup lemon juice (3 lemons juiced should do it)

  • 4 tbsp butter

  • Pinch of salt

  • Zest of 1 lemon


Beat the egg yolks and sugar in a saucepan until smooth. Add the lemon juice, butter and salt then cook over a medium-low heat stirring constantly until thickened. If it begins to bubble or steam take it off the heat for 30 seconds to allow it to cool. Strain the mixture, stir in the zest, then cool in the fridge for at least 6 hours.


Once you have your cooled meringue pie case and curd, pour in the curd three-quarters of the way up the meringue.


For a vegan filling we used Minimalist Baker’s recipe

  • 1 can coconut cream (14oz)

  • 2 tbsp lemon zest

  • ½ cup lemon juice

  • 2 tbsp arrowroot

  • 1-2 tbsp maple syrup


Dissolve the arrowroot in the lemon juice and whisk to thoroughly combine. Whisk the coconut cream and lemon zest in a saucepan. Add the arrowroot/lemon mix and continue whisking on a low setting for two minutes. Add the maple syrup, taste, and add more if more sweetness is required.


Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a low boil. Once the sauce starts boiling you should begin to see it thicken. Reduce the heat and keep cooking until it is a thick but pourable consistency, stirring well to ensure an even texture and that it does not stick to the sides. Remove from the heat and taste - adjust flavours as necessary. Once it has cooled for 15 minutes, check the texture. If it is too thin and soupy, bring to the boil once again as before and cook on low for another 10 minutes, then repeat the cooling step. Once your curd is a spreadable, gloopy texture when cool, whisk once more then cool in the fridge for at least 6 hours before using in your pie.


Once you have your cooled meringue pie case and curd, pour in the curd three-quarters of the way up the meringue.


For the ‘angel’ topping

  • 2 cups whipping or heavy cream

  • 2 tbsp sugar

  • Zest of two lemons

  • 50g Graham crackers, digestive biscuits or lotus cookies (if you cannot get these, cook some of the excess meringue mixture for longer until caramel coloured and crispy)


Combine the cream, sugar and zest in a bowl and whip until roughly doubled in size. Simply spoon onto the ready-assembled pie, ensuring all the curd filling is covered, then use a fork to shape the cream into aesthetically pleasing peaks.


Crush the biscuits into crumbs and drizzle over your pie for a contrast in texture or flavour.


For the vegan ‘angel’ topping, whip coconut milk instead of cream and use 1 tbsp less of sugar. The trick with this is to keep everything very cold - don’t be afraid to pause for a refrigeration break if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere.


Plath’s “heavenly” sponge cake recipe


This recipe is taken directly from Plath’s Letters and was transcribed by her from a magazine to send to Olwyn Hughes. See more about it in the Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume II: 1956-1963 (Faber & Faber, London, 2018), 323-324. Plath suggests baking this in a round cake pan with a hole in the middle, and we recommend frosting, as Plath seems to have frosted most of her cakes. Try with lemon frosting and any leftover curd from your lemon meringue pie!


Ingredients

6 eggs (separate)

1 1/2 cups sugar (sifted)

1 1/3 cups cake flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons water

1/2 tablespoon lemon extract

1 teaspoon vanilla


Beat yolks till lemon colored. Add sugar gradually. Add water & flavoring. Beat. Add flour gradually, beating. Beat egg whites to froth; add baking powder and salt to frothy egg whites. Beat until very stiff. Fold gently, but thoroughly into egg yolk mixture. Sprinkle granulated sugar lightly over top of cake before putting it in the oven. Bake for one hour at 325° [162C°]. Do not remove cake from pan till cake is cold.


Grandma Greenwood’s ‘economy’ meatloaf

“My grandmother always cooked economy joints and economy meatloaf and had the habit of saying, the minute you lifted the first forkful to your mouth, ‘I hope you enjoy that, it cost forty-one cents a pound’, which always made me feel I was somehow eating pennies instead of Sunday Roast.”


Meatloaf may be an American staple, but by combining it with the English 12th Night tradition of baking a coin into your dish makes literal Plath’s metaphor for Esther’s discontent - when serving, whoever gets the piece with the coin is ‘king or queen’ of the meal and should, according to tradition, get a paper crown. This is a hearty meal with a delicate, herby flavour that really is great at bulking out meat to feed a hungry family, giving 6 generous portions. If there are young children in your family, omit the coin for safety.


Ingredients

  • 1 small onion, diced

  • 1 carrot, diced - feel free to replace the onion and carrot with frozen casserole mix or soffritto.

  • 1 bay leaf

  • Olive oil

  • 50g breadcrumbs - whizz any leftover bread in a blender or use shop-bought panko breadcrumbs or the stuffing mix that’s in the back of the cabinet

  • 2-3 cloves garlic, diced

  • Any fresh herbs you have, or failing that our favourite blend of dried herbs: ¼ tsp sage, ½ tsp parsley, two pinches of rosemary, ¼ tsp white pepper, 1 pinch mustard powder, 1 pinch oregano or bouquet garni, 1 tsp bouillon powder or ½ stock cube, ½ tsp steak seasoning, ¼ tsp smoke flavour

  • Optionally 50g chopped pistachios or hazelnuts

  • ½ tsp salt

  • 1 tsp sugar

  • ½ tsp Marmite or MSG

  • 500g mince - any sort will do. If you don’t have mince then roughly-chop meat into small pieces. The recipe is best if you use half and half of two kinds of meat, but just use what you have. The recipe works with everything from venison to pork.

  • ½ can tomatoes, blended into a thin paste

  • 1 egg, beaten

  • 2 tsp Tabasco or Worcestershire sauce

  • 1 large coin, cleaned by soaking in a vinegar and salt solution


Preheat the oven to 200℃ or 390℉. Grease a loaf tin well with oil or line with parchment.


Cover the base of a frying pan in a thin layer of oil and fry your onion, carrot and bay leaf on a medium-low temperature to soften. After gently frying for approx. 10 minutes, add the garlic and fry for another 2 minutes. Meanwhile, mix all your dry ingredients together in a ramekin, then test the flavour by smelling it and seeing that the balance suits you. Add a pinch more of whatever feels lacking - tinker with the herbs until it smells like what you want to pair with the meat.


Take the vegetables off the heat and allow to cool, then remove the bayleaf and tip into a large bowl. Stir in 2 tbsp olive oil and all the other ingredients and combine well with either your hands or a wooden spoon. If the meat mixture pools liquid at the bottom of the bowl then add another 50g breadcrumbs and mix well once more.


Press the meat mixture firmly into one large patty and put it in the tin - if it falls apart do not worry, just press it together in the tin. Ensure that the coin is not visible. Cook for 45 minutes in the oven or until there are no pink bits. If the top begins to burn before the loaf is cooked, cover in tinfoil and keep in the oven. Serve hot and fresh or put into a sandwich the next day.


Tomato Soup Cake

Plath’s tomato soup cake is famous - as much for its unusual ingredients as for being Sylvia’s signature bake. It’s a very crumbly cake, but other than its somewhat orange hue and a salty tang you cannot taste the tomato soup - you will try it tentatively and eat it with relish, we’re sure. If you want to add a jam between the layers then we suggest raspberry or cherry as it combines well with the saltiness but is strong enough to be tasted.


For the cake

  • 1 can condensed tomato soup or 2 cans regular cream of tomato

  • 2 cups flour

  • 1 tbsp baking powder

  • ½ tsp baking soda

  • ½ tsp ground cloves

  • ½ tsp cinnamon

  • ½ tsp nutmeg

  • ½ cup butter

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

  • ½ cup walnuts or almonds, roughly chopped

  • 1 cup raisins


Begin by reducing the soup if it’s not condensed - boil on the hob until only half the soup remains. Keep a close eye on it so it does not burn at the bottom. This will take several hours, so do the day before you want the cake.


Preheat the oven to 375℉ or 190℃ and grease two round cake tins for sandwich cakes. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and spices, then set aside.


Cream the butter and sugar with a whisk until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat for approx. 5 minutes until well combined. Add ⅓ of the soup and use a wooden spoon to stir until combined. Sift in ⅓ of the flour mixture and fold that in, stirring to combine. Repeat the soup and flour with the remaining ⅔ of the mixture, alternating ⅓ each at a time. Stir in the raisins and nuts ensuring that they are distributed throughout the batter, then pour into the prepared tins and bake for 20-30 minutes, depending on how thin your cake pans are.


For the frosting

  • 16 oz cream cheese

  • ½ cup butter

  • 2 tsp vanilla

  • 1 pinch salt

  • 5 cups icing sugar, sifted


Beat the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and salt together until creamy and smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fully incorporated to get a fluffy, smooth consistency. Refrigerate until the cake is ready to be iced, then smother all over.


Plath’s ‘gift to NHS workers’ carrot cake

Plath gave the midwives who helped her birth Frieda and Nicholas a carrot cake she home-baked using the Plath family recipe. Although we can’t find that specific recipe, we have taken one instead from her favourite source of American recipes when she was living in England - the Ladies’ Home Journal. If you have an NHS worker you need to thank, this should do the trick, and it’s a nice easy one to do with children (although perhaps use tea instead of bourbon to steep the raisins if it is for children).


For the cake

  • ½ cup raisins

  • ¼ cup bourbon

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

  • 1 tsp baking soda

  • ½ tsp baking powder

  • ¾ tsp salt

  • ¾ tsp nutmeg

  • ½ tsp cinnamon

  • ¼ tsp ground cloves

  • 2 cups sugar

  • 1 cup vegetable oil

  • 2 large eggs

  • ¾ lb (12oz) carrots, peeled, grated coarsely, then chopped

  • 1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped


Pre-heat the oven to 350℉ or 180℃. Grease a 10-inch round cake pan or large loaf tin and line with baking parchment. Combine raisins and bourbon in a bowl then set aside. Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder and spices then set aside.


Using a large bowl, combine the sugar and oil by stirring with a wooden spoon until creamy and well-mixed. Add the eggs one at a time, being sure to mix well before adding the next one. Add one spoon of your dry mixture, slowly incorporate, then add the rest and fold into a batter.


Drain the raisins through a sieve; discard bourbon or save for future use. Add the raisins, carrots and pecans to the batter and beat well until you can see no lumps of flour and the chunks are well-distributed. Pour into your prepared cake pan and bake for roughly 1 ¼ hours, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.


For a vegan alternative, replace the eggs with egg replacement or mix 1 cup soymilk with 2 tbsp vinegar to make vegan buttermilk and use this instead. Stiffen the mixture with Xanthan gum if it pours in a slurry rather than in large drops.


For the frosting

  • 8 oz soft cream cheese or Neufchatel

  • 4 tbsp butter

  • 1 cup icing sugar

  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

  • ½ tsp lemon juice

  • Whole or half toasted pecans, for decoration


Simply beat together the cheese and butter until smooth using a whisk. Fold in the sugar with a spoon to incorporate, add the vanilla and lemon juice and whisk until smooth and fluffy.


Do not spread onto the cake until entirely cooled. The frosting can be stored in the fridge until ready to use.


Decorate the cake with pecans however you see fit - perhaps chop them and sprinkle over the top or stud the cake with nuts.



Ted Hughes’ Coffee

Ted, my saviour, emerging out of the neant with a tall mug of hot coffee which sip, by sip, rallied me to the day as he sat at the foot of the bed dressed for teaching, about to drive off - I blink every time I see him afresh. This is the man the unsatisfied ladies scan the Ladies’ Home Journal for, the man women read romantic novels for: oh, he is unbelievable & the more so because he is my husband & I somehow love cooking for him...


The Sylvia Plath Society recommends showing your partner or child how you like your coffee so that they can wake you from your nightmares - we think the coffee was probably more comforting than Ted.


Recommended reading


For all those Plath fans perhaps more interested in reading than doing, we have curated a list of food-related articles on The Bell Jar, Plath's life and cooking, both by Plath and others, and hope you will be inspired by these.


  • Plath’s favourite cookbook, Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

  • Plath’s essay ‘Kitchen Of The Fig Tree’ from the Christian Science Monitor

  • Old issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal, which Plath subscribed to from England to get the American recipes she missed

  • Valerie Stivers’ Eat Your Words column in the Paris Review - she has an episode on cooking with Plath, but the whole series is interesting

  • Kate Moses’ article ‘Baking with Sylvia’ in The Guardian

  • Lynda K. Bundzen’s ‘Lucent Figs and Suave Veal Chops: Sylvia Plath & Food”, originally published in Gastronomica and available online

  • Caroline Smith’s article ‘"The Feeding of Young Women": Sylvia Plath's ‘The Bell Jar’, Mademoiselle Magazine, and the Domestic Ideal” in Johns Hopkins University Press

  • Chapter 11 of Sylvia Plath in Context - Gerard Woodward writing about Plath and food


Please send photos of any Plath-inspired kitchen adventures or any other thoughts or queries to plathsoc@gmail.com or @plath_society on twitter. Contact us there if you would like to receive this newsletter, with pictures, to your email inbox.


As Esther Greenwood says, "my favourite dishes were full of butter and cheese and sour cream", so perhaps the secret to cooking like Plath is to garnish with full-fat dairy and hang the consequences?


Until next week,

The Sylvia Plath Society x


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