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Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Cake Quest

For several weeks now I have been hankering for a piece of the perfect Coconut Cake. Only problem is - it's not a cake I ever tasted before. Most coconut cakes are really butter cakes with white frosting and coconut sprinkled on top. I'm looking for something different. I wanted it to have a powerful coconut taste. I wanted a texture something like carrot cake only ... not carrot flavored or spice flavored - just coconut flavored. A second problem is ... I don't want a whole cake in my house. And since this is a cake quest - it might mean I need to bake several cakes!  Well.  I need several cakes in my house even less!!

The solution to the latter problem was easy because I knew my Cousin F was coming for a weekend visit and she likes to cook and she has 3 siblings - two of them teenagers. We could bake anything and send half of it home with her. 

The second problem was trickier. I'm an adequate baker but I don't really bake that much any more and I don't have that constant familiarity with a process needed to get creative with it. I'm more of the Over-the-river-and-through-the-woods sort of cook - basic country style home cooking - not the the Rose Levy Beranbaum sort - though now I've tracked down her blog there might be some baking adventures up ahead.

Challenged I might be but daunted I was not. Last year I stumbled upon America's Test Kitchen and their stunning magazines, website and television show, archived on DVD and available from Netflix. While I consider myself a good cook, with a few specialties all my very own, I really am not a foodie and I seldom use recipes. Like my knitting, if it doesn't grow organically out of what I have at hand combined with what I know in my head, I probably wont bother to cook it. I will use recipes to learn ethnic cooking, or to explore a foreign (to me) food like quinua but that's about the limit. Or rather - was. Because after experimenting with a few of the ATK recipes - the basic ones for stuff like pot roast and hamburgers - I know that sometimes it's good to consult some experts. I swear - their pot roast recipe is so good I want to dive into the pot and live there - and the beef stroganoff? - a dish I consider a throw-away 30 minute meal you cook on those days when you're too tired to cook? - well - Lord make me that tired every night of my life! 

I figured their recipe database would be where I began my Coconut Cake Quest and I figured right. You have to register to get it - but it's the freebie registration. And although they state up front it's based on their basic butter cake recipe - I could tell at a glance that the addition of both coconut extract and cream of coconut (you know the stuff you make pina coladas with) would guarantee a powerful coconut flavor. Since I have had such success with their previous recipes I decided to give it a go. 

The butter cake recipe was easy to stir up and didn't require anything too unusual beyond the cream of coconut. It has lots of egg whites in it - which give a lovely fine crumb texture. It's actually a recipe I'd be happy to bake again and cover with chocolate frosting to make what BD, and just about every other southern man, calls a "Chocolate Cake". While the cake cooled we toasted the coconut, 2 cups for the cake and a little more just because toasted coconut tastes soooo good.

The cake called for buttercream frosting which I had always thought was made with a little butter, a little milk, some flavorings and a lot of powdered sugar. This buttercream frosting is more of a 7-minute frosting - a cake topping I've never succeeded in producing till now. It's made with a cup of sugar, 4 egg whites and a pinch of salt beat over a pan of barely simmering water till it reaches 120 degrees. You then whip it till it cools down to 80 degrees and dump in 1/2 a cup of cream of coconut, 1 tsp of coconut extract and 1 tsp of vanilla. Then you beat in (I kid you not) 1 lb of unsalted butter cut into chunks! 

In my whole life the idea of using 1 lb of butter in anything has never once popped up to the surface of my mind. Even when making mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner I don't use more than a stick of butter and I feel pretty guilty at that. All I could think of was that I was beating up a bowl full of heart attacks. Still and all - I was determined to follow their recipe exactly. It's probably the only time I will ever make this frosting and I wanted to see just how it worked out. The sugar and egg whites took all of 8 minutes to cool down to 80 degrees and when they did they had only thickened the slightest bit. Adding the flavorings actually made it a tad bit soupier. The butter had been cut into 24 chunks and as I held the beater Cousin F dropped the chunks in one by one. At first it continued to look gloppy but by the time we were on the third stick of butter it began to look like frosting and after all 4 sticks had been incorporated we had the creamiest lightest sweet-but not too sweet paste I've ever made.

The cake assembly involved slicing the two cake layers lengthwise in order to get 4 layers and as you can see below - my cake slicing skills are only average. In fact, my ancient aluminum cake pans and aging gas oven ensured that the layers would be slightly uneven. That was not so important to me. I don't keep my house like the magazines - why would I expect my baking to look like them either. Besides, this cake was a joint effort. And the taste? Well. Yum! Never. Never have I tasted such pure vivid coconutty taste! There is an after taste too - that lingers on your tongue when you set your fork down. The frosting was very light - in spite of the full pound of butter that went into it. The toasted coconut added a fragrance that tickled my nose. It was a simply divine coconut cake.


Mind now - it wasn't what I had been aiming for - that moister, heavier carrot cake texture - but I think I can do that next time. My creativity has been sparked. Next time I'll bake a denser textured cake flavored with the cream of coconut and frost it with a saltier, less butter-packed powdered sugar frosting - perhaps even something with coconut and cream cheese ...

But for now - I have satisfied my Coconut Cake Quest - and that is a good way to begin Thanksgiving week. Bon Appetit!

1 comment:

  1. The cake is marvelous!

    I have two tips about cake baking since you mentioned the items in your review. For flat layers, the center has to bake at the same rate as the edges, so my aunt taught me this.

    Take an old terry towel, really old and soft, and tear two strips twice the height of your cake pans from the lengthwise stretch of the towels; make these strips long enough to wrap all the way around the pans plus some extra for pinning them on.

    These strips you wet well, wring out, fold in half, and wrap around the filled pans just before they go into the oven. Put the strips on tightly. This trick keeps the whole cake at the right temperature to bake flat instead of rise in the middle.

    The other tip I adapted from watching the cutting of "Thousand year old eggs" on Joyce Chen's cooking show. For this you use thread - sewing thread - and wrap a long piece around both you index fingers just at mid height of your baked layers. keep it tight and level, and you can slice right through the cake layers. It's sort of magical. That's how I sliced layer cakes for years.

    Thanks for sharing your lovely cake baking experience. It was wonderful to read. I hardly ever get to bake a cake anymore.

    Happy baking and knitting!