A New York food writer we know came to Charleston for his first visit to the South a few weeks ago.
His friends did right by him. He got feted with a cocktail party that included multiple shrimp platters and got his hands dirty at a backyard oyster roast. He tried pimento cheese, boiled peanuts and country ham and liked them all.
There was only one thing missing, he confided: No coconut cake.
He came south expecting to find it everywhere but hadnt found it anywhere.
There were a couple of reasons for that, we told him. In Charleston, the coconut cake market is dominated by the famous 12-layer version at the Peninsula Grill, where a single slice violates Miss Piggys rule to never eat anything bigger than your head.
Second, though, his timing was off. He got here between the major holidays. As every Southern baker knows, if youre going to take the trouble to make a true, homemade coconut cake crack and grate a coconut, bake the layers, boil and beat the white frosting you better have a good occasion.
With Easter coming up, it certainly is a good time to consider the coconut cake as fluffy and imposing as a dowagers best spring hat.
Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill knows so much about cake that she played a cake historian on the coconut cake episode of Alton Browns Good Eats several years ago. She still cracks up about it.
It was a hoot, she says. Fortunately, Im a big ham.
The cake authority
McDermott literally wrote the book on Southern cakes: Her book Southern Cakes (Chronicle, 2007) is considered an authority. And it has an entire chapter on coconut cake, with seven recipes, ranging from classic to a dolled-up version with a lemon curd filling.
I stumbled on the importance of it when I started researching, she says. I thought it would go into the antiques and heirlooms (chapter). And the more I looked around, the more I realized this is its own category.
Like most Southern kids, McDermotts memories of coconut cake revolve around the ritual of the coconut. The construction project of opening and grating one was the only time she remembers seeing her grandfather in the kitchen.
That always happened at Christmas, because coconut cake originated as many families holiday tradition. That connection goes back to the 19th century, when railroads made it possible but still luxurious to get oysters, oranges and coconuts in the winter.
Its exotic and special, says McDermott. The oysters and coconuts and oranges all came from tropical places.
Some cake history
To understand coconut cakes role in the South, it helps to know a little cake history. The real heyday of homemade layer cakes started about 1900, after cast-iron stoves and baking powder made baking more reliable.
Before baking powder, cakes were fruitcake and poundcake, says McDermott.
In larger cities, particularly in the North, there were immigrant populations with a history of operating bakeries. In the South, people tended to bake at home. So when layer cakes came into vogue in the 20th century, they took off here.
Lane Cake, from Alabama, and Lady Baltimore Cake, with roots in Charleston, both included coconut. It wasnt long before you also could find coconut sprinkled on a yellow cake frosted with Italian meringue boiled syrup beaten into whipped egg whites.
The coconut was already around, says McDermott. Coconut goes way back in the South because of port cities like New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah and Wilmington.
Thats where the fancy stuff would come in, says McDermott. That sort of cements it as a Southern tradition.
Desserts with shredded coconut, including ambrosia, pies and macaroons, turn up in Southern cookbooks as early as the 1700s.
So we had coconut long before we had coconut cake, says McDermott.
There was definitely coconut cake at Christmas. But what about coconut cake as an Easter tradition? Theres something so special about the way the white frosting stands out against spring pastels.
McDermott thinks that connection started as late as the 1950s, with womens magazines and their emphasis on color pictures.
I have no evidence, but that would make visual sense, she says. It goes with bunnies and colored eggs and flowers and poufy folderol.
McDermott likes to tell the story of an antiques dealer who once told her that a particular cup and saucer didnt come together but they go together.
To me, coconut cake goes with Easter, but I dont know if it came with it.
When you talk about cake history, McDermott says, you cant get too focused on history and provenance. A lot of things have grown into myths. For instance, German chocolate cake isnt German. It was made with the German brand of baking chocolate.
Whats important about coconut cake is less about the history and more about how people love it, identify with it and still make it for holidays.
It is transcendent, it is so wonderful, she says. Of course it goes with Easter.
HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 2 (9-inch) cake pans and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt, whisking to mix well. Set aside. Stir vanilla into coconut juice mixture and set aside.
BEAT the softened butter in a large bowl with a mixer at medium speed until creamy. Beat in the sugar, stopping to scrape down the sides if needed. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each.
STOP the mixer and add about a third of the flour mixture. Beat well at low speed, then beat in half of the coconut juice. Continue, beating in a third of the flour and the remainder of the juice, then the final third of the flour.
DIVIDE the batter between the cake pans, spreading evenly. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, turning pans halfway through, until the tops spring back when lightly pressed and the edges are beginning to pull away.
COOL cakes in pans on wire racks or on folded kitchen towels for 10 minutes. Turn cakes out onto racks and turn top-up to cool completely. Ice with frosting as directed.
FROSTING: Bring about 3 inches of water to an active simmer in the bottom of a double boiler or in a medium saucepan. Combine the sugar, corn syrup, water, egg whites and cream of tartar in the top of the double boiler or in a mixing bowl that will fit snugly in the pan. Beat with a handheld mixer on low speed for 1 minute, until pale yellow and foamy.
PLACE over simmering water and beat at high speed for 7 to 14 minutes until white, thick and shiny. Continue beating until it forms firm peaks and loses some of the shine. Remove from heat and beat in the vanilla. Spread between cake layers, topping with a generous amount of fresh coconut. Frost sides and top of cake, topping with more coconut.
STAND MIXER: If you dont have a hand mixer, combine the ingredients in the mixing bowl and whisk well. Place over the hot water and whisk for several minutes, until the sugar is dissolved and no longer sounds gritty and the mixture registers 140 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Move the bowl to the stand mixer and beat on high speed until it forms peaks and just starts to lose its shine. Frost cake, adding coconut as directed.Coconut Cupcakes If you dont want to tackle the project of a coconut cake, you can still get the flavor with these easy cupcakes. Adapted from an Ina Garten recipe on www.foodnetwork.com. CUPCAKES: 3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature 2 cups sugar 6 large eggs, room temperature 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract 1 cup buttermilk 1 (14-ounce) bag sweetened, shredded coconut, divided FROSTING: 1 (8-ounced) package cream cheese, room temperature 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 1/4 teaspoon almond extract 3 to 4 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
PREHEAT oven to 325 degrees. Line muffin pan with paper cups. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and set aside.
BEAT butter and sugar on high speed with a mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. On low speed, beat in eggs one at a time, scraping down bowl as needed. Beat in vanilla and almond extracts.
BEAT in flour mixture and buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour and mixing just until combined. Fold in 2 packed cups of coconut.
FILL each cupcake liner to the top with batter. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the tops are brown and a toothpick in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 or 15 minutes, then remove and cool completely on a rack. Reline pan with cupcake liners and continue baking.
MAKE the frosting by beating the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and almond together with an electric mixer. Slowly beat in the confectioners sugar a little at a time, until smooth and thick enough to spread. Spread the remaining coconut on a small plate.
ICE the cupcake tops, then place each one top-down in the coconut, pressing in a little to get a good coating. YIELD: About 2 dozen cupcakes.