Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Southern classic

I have nothing against coconut, and actually quite like coconut creme brulee, curries with coconut, and those gelatinous coconut flavored squares at dim sum, but coconut cake has never appealed to me. I've never even tried it actually, because there has never been any desire to. It doesn't appear that anyone else does usually either, because I'm sure had anyone in my company ordered it, I would have had a taste. Maybe it's the appearance of the cake that is unappealing. Showered with a flurry of sweetened coconut, you would seemingly have to gnaw at it like a horse does with hay -- too much work. Or maybe it's the uniform color that most coconut cakes have.



How can it possibly be good?

Then again, I don't understand the appeal of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting either. A dark brown cocoa-enhanced cake with a tender crumb swathed in cream cheese frosting? Totally get it. The same cake with salted caramel frosting? Yes, please. Put chocolate frosting on it and I just think, "Boring. What's the point?"

Anyhow, it wasn't until a friend of Alix' mentioned this as one of his favorite cakes did I ever hear of someone having an affinity for this dessert, and, because I'm all for trying new things, I decided I would have to make it at least once.

Again, since most people don't seem to love coconut cake as much as, say, red velvet, or strawberry country cake, I finally remembered to make it when said friend of a friend's birthday came around. It was then that I learned that it's more of a Southern treat, and one that people definitely have strong feelings about. Some recipes call for a meringue frosting, some for buttercream, and some even for cream cheese frosting which, of course, became my choice. The coconut flavor is attributed to either coconut milk in the cake, or cream of coconut. I had never even heard of cream of coconut, but it can be found in the mixer aisle of the supermarket as it's the base for pina coladas. I'll have to try another recipe that relies on coconut milk another time as I'm not sure the coconut flavor was distinct enough for my liking using the cream of coconut.

With my luck, it ended up that after making this gorgeous three layer cake, I find out that the birthday boy was in London and not returning for well over a week. That was a slight disappointment, because he completely deserves a nice gesture, but it was definitely a good excuse to finally try to make -- and eat -- this kind of cake. (Obviously, we weren't going to let all my hard work go to waste.) Now, it still isn't a favorite of mine (and we all know I do love cake), but it's not a bad concoction at all -- some people were actually extremely fond of it, including people who don't normally like coconut cake at all. Cream cheese frosting -- it unites us all.

Coconut Layer Cake
from Shubox Cafe via Epicurious

2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup canned sweetened cream of coconut (such as Coco Lépez)*
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar, butter and sweetened cream of coconut in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla extract. On low speed, beat in dry ingredients and then buttermilk, each just until blended.

Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites with pinch of salt in another large bowl until stiff but not dry. Fold beaten egg whites into batter.

Divide cake batter between prepared pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool cakes in pans on rack 10 minutes. Run small sharp knife around pan sides to loosen cakes. Turn cakes out onto racks and cool completely.

Place 1 cake layer on cake plate. Spread 1 cup Cream Cheese Frosting over cake layer. Sprinkle 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut over. Top with second cake layer. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Sprinkle remaining coconut over cake, gently pressing into sides to adhere. (Coconut Layer Cake can be prepared up to 1 day ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours before serving.)

Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from recipe accompanying Tropical Carrot Cake via Epicurious

3 8-ounce packages Philadelphia-brand cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
3/4 cup canned sweetened cream of coconut (such as Coco López)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth. Beat in powdered sugar, then cream of coconut and both extracts. Chill until firm enough to spread, about 30 minutes.