This updated coconut cake with whipped cream frosting and coconut custard is even better than a childhood memory, which is no small thing
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. This 12-pounder sells 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.
SERVES 12 to 16 (makes two 8-inch cakes).
This recipe calls for 8 eggs, divided, with 4 yolks in the cake, and the remaining 4 in the custard (recipe follows). Coconut milk is usually found in the Asian foods aisle at the supermarket. This recipe should be made 1 to 2 days in advance. Don't want to make a layer cake? The batter could be prepared in a 9- by 13-inch pan, as well.
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 placing 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 the flour and salt until airy and free of lumps. (You can also 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 the sugar, a spoonful at a time. Increase the speed and beat until the whites hold a soft peak when beaters are lifted. With a spatula, fold the egg yolks into the whites, then fold in the flour, scraping and lifting from the 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 2 pans. Bake for 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 the 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, whip the cream and spread over the top and sides of the cake, then cover generously with coconut. Return the cake, uncovered, to the refrigerator until serving time. Slice with a serrated knife.
Nutrition information per each of 16 servings: Calories 400; Fat 23 g; Sodium 160 mg; Carbohydrates 45 g; Saturated fat 16 g; Calcium 60 mg; Protein 6 g; Cholesterol 135 mg; Dietary fiber 1 g.
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 bread/starch, 2 other carb, 1/2 medium-fat meat, 4 fat.
Makes about 3 cups (enough for a 4-layer cake)
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks; set aside.
In a medium saucepan, stir together the 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 the 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 the yolk mixture, stirring at a boil for another minute. Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla extract, then pour into a bowl. Let cool for 10 minutes, then stir. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cool.
Makes about 5 cups (enough for 2-layer cake).
Whip the cream with the powdered sugar to stiff peaks.
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