A coconut cake's makeover results in nostalgia, updated

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)April 22, 2014 

With spring in the air, coconut cake seemed like the perfect recipe to offer readers. But which cake?

There's no generic formula. Oh my, no. Cakes can be white or yellow, filled with custard or lemon curd or frosting, be coconutty through and through or simply sport a drift of flakes.

A recipe that's often referred to as the "ultimate," from Peninsula Grill in Charleston, S.C., includes 2 pounds of butter, 6 cups of heavy cream, 11 cups of coconut and 7 cups of sugar. You can order this 12-pounder for $100, which also is about what shipping costs will run you. No doubt it's marvelous.

Other recipes looked promising and, when auditioned, got their share of compliments. Still, one cake could have been more tender. A lemon filling was refreshing, but did it complement or undercut the coconut? An Italian buttercream frosting is to die for, but in an era of serviceable stuff in cans, how many bakers would take on boiling sugar and water to the soft-ball stage?

During a recent visit to my folks in South Dakota, I'd baked another version that was perfectly good, yet still not what I was seeking. Then my sister mentioned a scrumptious cake that we'd loved as kids, a feather-light sponge cake layered with custard that our Aunt Faye made from a recipe she'd gotten from her sister-in-law, Helen. (In a small town, it's good form to track a dish's provenance.)

We'd all once had the recipe, and all had mislaid it. So when my sister said that she'd found it, the rejoicing commenced.

Yet as with most nostalgia, the recipe didn't match the memory — nor the times. It called for gelatin, no longer a kitchen staple.

The custard filling was vanilla, with coconut folded in. We could do better and still honor its roots.

For starters, we boosted the batter's flavor with coconut extract. Today's bakers also have more access to coconut milk, so that was an easy swap for the custard's plain milk and also made it unnecessary to fold in coconut flakes, which improved the texture. Scalding milk no longer is necessary for health concerns, and cornstarch provided the body that gelatin once did.

Instead of folding the custard into whipped cream, we used the custard as filling and the whipped cream as frosting for a more attractive cake.

Finally, we shifted from that church basement standard, the 9- by 13-inch pan. Turns out the batter makes two lovely 8- or 9-inch rounds, which result in a showier, multilayered cake.

A final plus: This dessert should be made the day before — even two days! — so it can set thoroughly and chill, making it a perfect do-ahead. Swoosh on the whipping cream any time within 24 hours of serving and toss on a generous blanket of toasted coconut.

The result is even better than a childhood memory, which is no small thing.

recipes

Coconut milk is usually found in the Asian foods aisle at the supermarket. Don't want to make a layer cake? The batter could be prepared in a 9- by 13-inch pan, as well.

Coconut cake

8 eggs, separated

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon coconut extract

1 cup cake flour

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

1¼ cups sugar

2 cups coconut flakes or chips, sweetened or unsweetened

Coconut custard (recipe follows)

Whipped cream frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and place rack in center position. Using 2 8- or 9-inch round pans, cut and fit 2 rounds of parchment paper. Spray paper with cooking spray.

Separate the 8 eggs, placing all the whites in a large bowl and 4 yolks each in two small bowls. Set 1 bowl of yolks aside for the custard.

Add vanilla and coconut extracts to remaining bowl of yolks and whisk together. Set aside. In another bowl, whisk together flour and salt until airy and free of lumps. (You also can use a sifter.) Set aside.

With a mixer, beat together egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until frothy, then slowly begin adding sugar, a spoonful at a time. Increase speed and beat until whites hold a soft peak when beaters are lifted. With a spatula, fold egg yolks into the whites, then fold in flour, scraping and lifting from bottom of the bowl, being careful to deflate the whites as little as possible, until no streaks of dry flour remain.

Divide batter among the pans. Bake 28 to 30 minutes, or until cake springs back when pressed gently in the center.

Place pans on wire rack to cool completely. The cakes will shrink a bit as they cool.

While oven still is hot, spread coconut on a rimmed pan and toast until golden, watching carefully and stirring occasionally. This will take about 5 minutes for chips, 10 to 15 minutes for flakes. Pour toasted coconut into a bowl and set aside.

To assemble the cake: Remove cooled cakes from pans and peel off parchment paper. Turn right side up and, with a long serrated knife, carefully split each cake into 2 even layers. Place 1 layer on a serving plate and cover with a third of the custard (about ¾ cup). Repeat with remaining cake layers and custard. Spread any remaining custard over the top of the cake. Wrap the outside and top of the cake with plastic wrap, pulling it firmly against the sides, and refrigerate overnight, or for up to two days.

Up to within 24 hours of serving, cover top and sides of cake with whipped cream frosting, then cover generously with coconut. Return the cake, uncovered, to the refrigerator until serving time. Slice with a serrated knife. Serves 12 to 16 (makes two 8-inch cakes).

Nutrition information per serving (based on 16): 400 calories, 23 g. fat, 160 mg. sodium, 45 g. carbohydrates, 16 g. saturated fat, 60 mg. calcium, 6 g. protein, 135 mg. cholesterol, 1 g. dietary fiber.

Coconut custard

4 egg yolks

1⁄3 cup cornstarch

¾ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cab (13.5 to 14 ounces) coconut milk (not low-fat or lite)

1¼ cups milk, or enough to equal 3 cups with the coconut milk

½ teaspoon vanilla

In a small bowl, whisk together egg yolks; set aside.

In a medium saucepan, stir together cornstarch, sugar and salt. Open the can of coconut milk, taking care to open the end indicated on the can (because the solids will have settled), then pour into a 4-cup measure and whisk to recombine the liquids and solids. Add milk to equal 3 cups and whisk together.

Whisk milk mixture into the cornstarch and, stirring constantly, bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Tip about ½ cup of the hot mixture into the yolks, whisking briskly so the eggs warm without forming lumps.

Return the saucepan to the heat and whisk in yolk mixture, stirring at a boil for another minute. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla extract, then pour into a bowl. Let cool for 10 minutes, then stir. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cool. Makes about 3 cups (enough for a 4-layer cake)

Whipped cream frosting

2 cups heavy whipping cream

¼ cup powdered sugar

Whip cream with powdered sugar to stiff peaks. Makes about 5 cups (enough for 2-layer cake).

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