Is it taboo to write about baking and Sylvia Plath? When I told a friend what I was cooking this week, his face froze in a half-smile. “Oh, um, ha! But really, what are you making?” Another awkward reaction: “Well … be careful?”
I still feel like I’m tiptoeing around the elephant in the room every time I mention an oven. But, as for many a 1950s-era wife and mother, cooking and baking were large parts of Plath’s daily life, and not unwelcome ones. “How I love to cook!” she wrote in her journals – and apparently she was no slouch either. Ted Hughes praised his wife’s cooking in his letters: “Sylvia by the way is becoming the most superlative cook I’ve encountered.” To him, she was “a princess of cooks.”
We tend to think of cooking, and particularly baking, as a soothing, cathartic experience. But, as anyone who has put together a dinner party (much less run an actual bakery) can attest, it can lead to some very un-soothing thoughts. Did I beat the eggs enough? Shouldn’t it be rising more? What if I didn’t grease the ramekins enough and half of the cake sticks and then it breaks in half and the whole thing is ruined and then what will I do? THEN WHAT?
Plath seemed to have a similar dual reaction to her time in the kitchen; it was both a blessed release and a warning sign, a suffocating dead end. In 1957, after a day spent baking a pie, Plath worriedly wrote in her journal, “You will escape into domesticity & stifle yourself by falling headfirst into a bowl of cookie batter.” It’s an uncomfortable moment, a hint of things to come.
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Plath was a famous devotee of The Joy of Cooking, using it as her culinary lifeline to the Americas while she was living abroad. According to Kate Moses in the Guardian, she wrote “Lady Lazarus” while baking the cookbook’s lemon pudding cake – a seemingly improbable combination of dark themes and bright flavors that I’ve come to see as quintessential Plath.
This recipe is nearly identical to the 1950s Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer recipes, but with buttermilk rather than regular milk for a little more tang and a little less fat. You can try it either way, depending on what you have at hand. It’s a cake that’s worth feeling a bit domestic for.
(Adapted from The Craft of Baking)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2/3 cup granulated sugar, plus more for ramekins
1/4 cup flour
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cup reduced-fat buttermilk
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 egg yolks
4 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt
Powdered sugar and fresh berries, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 6 6-ounce ramekins, lightly dust with granulated sugar, and set them in a small roasting pan.
2. In a medium bowl, combine remaining 2/3 cup granulated sugar, the flour and lemon zest. In a larger bowl, whisk together buttermilk, lemon juice, and egg yolks. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and whisk until combined.
3. In a small bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer, beat egg whites with salt until soft peaks form. Gently fold into lemon mixture. Divide batter evenly among ramekins and fill roasting pan with hot water until it reaches halfway up ramekins. Tent with foil.
4. Bake 20 minutes. Remove foil, then bake another 20 minutes or until cakes are golden and firm to the touch. Transfer ramekins to a rack and let cool 15 minutes. Run a sharp knife around the edges and invert onto plates. Garnish with powdered sugar and berries.