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The Coconut Cake Conundrum

As I paused under the umbrella of white flowers bathing in the last rays of sunshine before the next storm moved in, I was reminded of that lingering task on my to-do list: Make a coconut cake. I have been transferring it from one page to another in my planner since I checked out Amy Reichert’s novel, Coincidence of the Coconut Cake, from my local library almost two years ago.

I don’t mean to give the ill impression that this was a dreaded task; time is just so fleeting. One moment it is 10 am on a wide-open Saturday morning, and at the next glance of the clock it is 6 pm on a Sunday with a whole week of work looming. Time is a mystery I will never understand.

While the exact history of coconut arriving in the Americas is a little muddled, I think most would agree it makes a delightful addition to many desserts and even main dishes. Despite my rave reviews of coconut, I do have some lackluster memories of this tropical fruit. One was lugging a huge weighted-down pillow case full of candy from house to house on Halloween, only to open it upon my return home to discover multiple Mounds or Almond Joys staring back at me. At the time I considered those coconut candies akin to seeing peas or spinach lying amongst a trove of coveted treats like Snickers, Reeses, and Butterfingers. Although I am a huge fan of magic cookie bars or 7-layer bars, as I refer to the ones I bake, the chewy insides of Mounds and Almond Joys were not in my opinion worth eating - then or now. 

But enough about books and sub-par candy bars. I want to talk about cake! With the flowers starting to bloom, it was easy to want to leap straight into spring, especially since I was already craving all the wonderful desserts that accompany the season. But it is still winter, which means the strawberries and blueberries are absent from the farmers markets.  So with rain on deck all weekend, there was no time like the present to whip up my inaugural coconut cake.

Having not made one before, I did not have a go-to recipe and, surprisingly, neither did my mom. Living in an age with endless information just a few taps of the keys away, I knew finding a recipe couldn’t be easier, but where is the fun in that? Since the thought of coconut cake reminds me of a time laden with gingham and rickrack, my first thought was to look in my old, hand-me-down cookbooks. I started with one from 1903.  I was giddy as I turned each page in anticipation of seeing the simple four-line recipe printed on a crumbling yellowed page.  But no such luck. From here I went to my 1960s Mcall’s cookbook, the first cookbook my mom owned and one she still uses recipes from today. Again, no mention of coconut cake! I felt like my glossy magazine-worthy mental picture of a just-baked coconut cake, beautifully displayed on a green glass cake stand with gingham curtains neatly pressed and hanging unassumingly in the background, was getting crushed one cookbook at a time. Were coconut cakes not a popular dessert 60-70 years ago as I thought? A little research was in order. 

If I had my druthers, I would have put on some of my favorite vintage bell bottoms and pedaled down to the library to immerse myself in a backroom of old cookbooks; seemingly outdated but full of all things wonderful. Living in the heart of suburbia, an option this was not. There is no backroom full of such treasures and no amount of daydreaming or wishful thinking could make one appear. (Trust me, I tried.) So instead, I did the next best thing. I made myself a cup of chamomile tea, piled up all of the cookbooks I owned, sat on the floor, and went to work.

This turned out not to be as rich in options as I hoped. Despite having a growing collection of cookbooks, I knew my options wouldn’t be endless but I didn’t expect it to be bleak. The only one, emphasis on one, that I found seemed to overly rely on coconut extract. As tasty as the cake may have been, artificial coconut flavor was not the taste I was seeking. I also was not looking to crack and shred a fresh coconut, as gratifying as that might be.

I finally caved and begrudgingly powered up my laptop. After studying various recipes, I pieced together one that used only coconut milk, coconut milk powder, and real coconut. I decided to use toasted flaked coconut for the outside, leaving the top just swirled frosting. I like both the taste and the coloring that toasting the coconut provides, and I prefer the texture of the large flakes over the shredded coconut that is typically seen.

I am happy to report that the cake was delicious and the coconut flavor was neither overpowering nor artificial tasting. The rain ended up holding off most of the day but I enjoyed the day experimenting rush-free in the kitchen. The evening was capped off by sharing a piece of just-baked cake with the ones I love. And that was the “icing on the cake.”



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