Cooking with Sylvia Plath


Eat Your Words

In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers. 


In her diaries, Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) liked to boast about her “damn good” lemon-meringue pie, which she was able to produce even under difficult conditions. She once wrote that she “cooled lemon custard and crust on cold bathroom windowsill,” presumably due to lack of refrigeration at a rental apartment at Smith College. Pie-making enthusiasts will know that keeping the dough cold, cold, cold is the trick, and also that the fridge is pretty essential for setting a lemon curd. They will marvel, as I do, at Plath’s excellent domestic skills. 

Plath was committed to perfection both as a writer and as a woman of the 1950s, a work-life dilemma that still resonates with women today. In her stories, she tends to distill the nightmarish aspects of the feminine. In “Mothers,” for example, Esther, a character trying to fit into small-town life, cooks a giant rutabaga, which looked “storybook” at the market but “after two minutes in the pressure cooker … shrank to a wan, orange mash that blacked the bottom and sides of the pot with a slick, evil-smelling liquor.” Later, Esther dines at a buffet containing “a startling number of cakes, all painstakingly decorated, some with cherries and nuts and some with sugar lace.” There’s a sense of time wasted, of an intelligent person confronted with the absurd that I, who once set off for my Manhattan office job still wearing my apron, recognize myself in.

In Plath’s diaries, however, the quotidian is mostly a source of joy. She loved to eat and cooked maniacally for dinner parties. In The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, she calls the author of the cookbook The Joy of Cooking, “my blessed Rombauer,” and reads the book “like a rare novel,” full of “delectable recipes … with all the right touches of seasoning.” She laments that instead of “studying Locke, for instance, or writing – – – I go make an apple pie.” But the pie makes her happy.

I made a breakfast mentioned in her journals of sautéed cabbage on toast with bacon and potatoes, based on a technique found in the cabbage section of The Joy of Cooking. That “right touch” of seasoning is paprika. Though Plath loved coffee (“we sipped scalding coffee, felt gray and diffuse as the wet weather”), I paired the toast with her husband’s preferred morning drink of  “brandy milk.” Then, influenced by the scene in the movie Sylvia where Gwyneth Paltrow bakes all the cakes—itself based on a story idea noted in Plath’s diary —I tried to produce “a startling number” of desserts. I did Plath’s lemon-meringue pie and then, through a tantalizing mention of an “angel topping” in her diaries, made two more curds, of lime and orange, and two curd pies with “angel” crusts. I also made a loaf cake with a fancy decoration of nuts and cherries.

Plath committed suicide in her kitchen in 1963, at the age of thirty, carefully taping off the room her children slept in before turning the gas on and putting her head in the oven. Her diaries are full of the fight between her “good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colors” and the “demon [that] would murder this self.” Yet as bad as it got, she always felt that “dusting, washing daily dishes, talking to people who are not mad … helps.”

Today, we cook in honor of that.

Ted Hughess Morning Brandy Milk
Makes 1 drink.

1 cup milk
1/4 cup brandy
3 tbs sugar syrup

Mix all ingredients together except for the nutmeg.

Add ice.

Sprinkle the top with nutmeg, and serve.

Blessed Rombauer Breakfast Toast
Inspired by recipes from The Joy of Cookings 1975 edition. Serves two.

1 medium potato
1 tbs olive oil
2–4 slices of bacon, depending on size
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 cups of cabbage, shredded
1/4 tsp paprika
2 slices of good-quality sourdough bread
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Chop the potato into rough slivers, about 1/4 inch thick and precook, either salted and tossed with olive oil in a 400° F oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or in boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes until tender.

While the potato is cooking, fry the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat.

Remove bacon and drain off most of the grease, leaving about 2 tbs grease and all of the crunchy brown bits in the pan.

Turn the heat to medium low, add the garlic, and stir until the raw edge is removed, about 1 minute.

Add the cabbage and cook, stirring occasionally until it’s wilted.

Add cooked potatoes.

Toss and season with paprika and salt and pepper to taste.

Continue to fry on medium-low heat, 5 to 10 minutes until the mixture is beginning to brown. Set aside.

Toast the slices of sourdough bread.

While the bread is toasting, fry two eggs until cooked on both sides but runny in the middle.

Assemble the toast, layering on the cabbage-potato mixture, then bacon, then fried egg.

Marzipan-Apricot Loaf Cake, Painstakingly Decorated
Inspired by a recipe from The Great British Bake Off: How to Bake cookbook.  

For the glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
3 tbs milk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Mix all ingredients together and set aside, adding more milk if the glaze is too thick.

For the topping:
Slivered almonds
Maraschino cherries

For the cake:
1 cup of buttermilk
1/3 cup salted butter, melted
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbs whiskey
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup of dried apricots, chopped
1 cup of marzipan, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350.

Butter a standard size loaf pan.

Mix the buttermilk, butter, sugar, egg and whiskey in a large bowl.

Sprinkle the baking soda over the top, then stir.

Gently fold in the flour until combined, followed by the apricots and the marzipan.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 1 hour, then test. Cake is done when a tester stuck in the center comes out dry, which can take up to 90 minutes.

When the cake is cool, pour on the glaze, then top with almonds and cherries.

Sylvia Plaths “Damn Good” Lemon-Meringue Pie
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking, 1975 edition, by Irma Rombauer, and The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Ideally, you would make the pie dough the night before and allow it to rest in the fridge overnight.

1 pie crust, prebaked; I recommend the recipe and prebaking method from Smitten Kitchen
1 cup lemon curd, preferably homemade
1 recipe of classic French meringue

For the curd:
4 large egg yellows
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
4 tbs unsalted butter
pinch of salt
2 tsp lemon zest

In a coated saucepan, beat the yolks and the sugar until well blended.

Stir in the remaining ingredients except the lemon zest.

Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. The mixture will turn opaque and thickly coat a wooden spoon when it’s ready. Do not allow the curd to boil, and briefly remove from heat, still stirring, if it begins to steam.

When the curd has thickened, pour at once into a strainer and press through with the back of a spoon.

Discard the residue.

Add the zest and stir.

For the meringue:
4 large egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar; use caster sugar if you have it
1 cup powdered sugar

Using the balloon attachment of a stand mixer, beat the whites at medium-high speed until frothy.

Add the cream of tartar and beat at medium speed while gradually adding 2 tbs of the sugar.

When soft peaks form, add one more tbs sugar and increase the speed to high.

Continue on high speed until the meringue stands up from the bowl in a stiff peak when you lift the beater.

Gradually beat in the remaining sugar. Continue until the meringue is very stiff and glossy.

Sift the powdered sugar over the meringue and fold in gently.

To assemble:

Preheat the oven to 250.

Pour the warm curd over the prebaked pie crust and smooth with a spatula.

Top with meringue, making a decorative pattern with a spatula or knife.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the meringue begins to brown on top.

Remove from the oven, let cool, then chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours, preferably longer.

Chocolate-Orange Angel Pie and Lime Angel Pie
Inspired by The Joy of Cooking, 1975 edition, by Irma Rombauer, and The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum.

Plath mentioned that her lemon-meringue pie is angel topped, but the only “angel pie recipe in the Rombauer is this one, which uses meringue for the crust and is filled with a mixture of curd and whipped cream, topped with more whipped cream. The crust and curd can be made ahead of time, but the finished pie should be served shortly after assembly. The recipe provided below is for lime angel pie, with notes below on how to do the chocolate variation.

1 recipe classic French meringue
1 recipe lime curd (1 cup)
2 cups heavy cream, whipped with 2 tbs sugar to make 4 cups whipped cream
lime zest or candied lime peel for garnish.

For the French meringue:

See meringue recipe for “Damn Good” Lemon-Meringue Pie, above.

For the lime curd:

See the lemon curd recipe for “Damn Good” Lemon-Meringue Pie, above.

Substitute lime juice and zest for the lemon juice and zest, and add 2 tbs cornstarch with the rest of the ingredients in step two to help the mixture set.

For the crust:

Preheat the oven to 200.  

Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie dish.

Spread the recipe of French meringue in an even layer along the bottom and up the sides of the dish, making a fluted rim, like a pie crust.

Bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours until dried out and just beginning to color. If a knife inserted into the center comes out with the filling just slighly sticky, it’s done.

Cool completely.

To assemble:

Take about half of the whipped cream (2 cups) and mix with the lime curd to make a lime cloud cream.

Spread the cream in the baked crust.

Top with the rest of the whipped cream.

Garnish with grated zest or candied lime peel.

Serve immediately.

Variation: To make a chocolate-orange pie, assemble as above, but using an orange cloud cream and a chocolate meringue shell, and unsweetened cocoa powder or candied orange peel to garnish.

To make the orange curd, reduce the juice of an orange to 2 tbs and otherwise follow the lemon curd recipe for “Damn Good” Lemon-Meringue Pie, above. Substitute orange juice and zest for the lemon juice and zest, and add 2 tbs of cornstarch with the rest of the ingredients in step 2 to help the mixture set.

To make the chocolate meringue shell, make 1 recipe classic French meringue from “Damn Good” Lemon-Meringue Pie, above, but whisk 2 tbs cocoa powder into the powdered sugar before folding it into the meringue. Spread the chocolate meringue in the pie dish and bake as above. Assemble as above.

Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York.

Read other installments of Eat Your Words here