Baking Sylvia Plath’s favorite cake, in honor of her birthday

Happy birthday to one of our favorite literary geniuses, Sylvia Plath. If Sylvia were alive today, she would be turning 83. We have a soft spot for this Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who is also the author of The Bell Jar, which has basically become a rite-of-passage read for word-loving young women everywhere. We’re drawn to Plath for so many reasons, but mostly because she was so unflinchingly real every time she put pen to paper. We feel as though we know her.

Much has been read and written about Plath in the 52 years since her death, but something not many people know is that Sylvia loved to bake. There’s a scene in the 2003 movie, Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and Daniel Craig as her poet husband, Ted Hughes, in which she bakes a dozen cakes in a day as she battles writer’s block. But the real-life Sylvia didn’t bake just when she was blocked. She baked all the time. Once Plath was living in England, she wrote her mother, begging her to mail a copy of the Joy of Cooking, because it was the book she missed more than all her others. According to a fascinating 2003 essay in the Guardian by writer Kate Moses, Plath had a lemon pudding cake in the oven as she wrote her famous poem, Lady Lazarus. On the day she wrote Fever 103, she baked apple cake and banana bread. When she penned Death & Co., she made tomato soup cake.

Have you ever heard anything quite as quintessentially ’60s as tomato soup cake? I mean, really. I have Andy Warhol lithographs spinning in my head. Tomato soup cake was actually Plath’s favorite recipe. She made it all the time. It was pretty much her go-to cake. But what is it? Tomato soup…in cake form? It certainly sounds, um, interesting.

Plath is one of my favorite writers. I’ve written about her many times, so for her birthday this year, I decided to give her favorite cake a whirl. Yep, I made Sylvia a birthday cake.

I found two recipes for her tomato soup cake online. Both were very similar. In the end, I went with the one on the Graywolf Press website. I figured if I was going to make a poetic cake, choosing a recipe that had been perfected by another poet (D. A. Powell) was a good idea.

I had my doubts when I saw the recipe. It called for half a teaspoon of mace. Um…what? It’s a spice, apparently. (Not the stuff you carry in a can in your handbag when you ride the subway alone at night.) My doubts increased as I mixed up the batter. It was very pink (a by-product of the soup, obvs), and it smelled sort of like spaghetti sauce. But once it was out of the oven and iced, it was pretty delicious. Very dense and super flavorful, it tastes a lot like a carrot cake muffin. I fed it to my husband and he had no clue about the soup. (Until I told him, at which point he didn’t believe me.)

You can find the recipe here if you’d like to give it a try. We think it’s a fitting way to honor a poet who once wrote, “Instead of studying Locke, for instance, or writing – I go make an apple pie, or study The Joy Of Cooking, reading it like a rare novel.”

Happy birthday, Sylvia Plath—poet, author and lover of cake.

[Images via BBC and author.]

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