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 the 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 only 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 thoroughly set and chill, making it a perfect do-ahead. Swoosh on the whipping cream anytime 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.